I Samuel – Religion and Politics

I Samuel 7 – Judging IsraelAdult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast March 16, 2008 

Introduction               Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Church. Today is Palm Sunday when we celebrate the triumphant entry of the true king into Jerusalem. The ACC tournament is this weekend, and today’s lesson is about idolatry and false gods. I’ll let you decide if there is a connection there. As you know, I am an alumnus of UNC and a fan of Tarheel basketball. It has been a good season for them, and I wish them well, but I think we all have to keep a sense of perspective about sports. It is important that we reclaim the old notion that athletic competition is a way to develop character and fairness. Sports does a lot of good things. For instance, athletics helped break down racial barriers and prejudice in this country, but universities should continually remind alumni that the purpose of a school is education and scholarship. It is sad that it is so much easier to raise money for a sports program than for classrooms. People claim that sports provide immortality for great athletes, but fame remains fleeting. Winning a national championship this year will mean nothing next year. Our true hope for immortality lies in God not in a sports hall of fame, and the most difficult contest is living morally in an immoral society.

Mourning for the Lord          Last week we left the Ark of the Covenant at Kiriath Jearim. Much of our discussion after class was about the ark and what happened to it. The truth is that no one knows when the ark disappeared for good. It was placed in the Temple by Solomon and was not mentioned again in Scripture. It may have been given in tribute to the Assyrians when all of the gold was stripped from the Temple or it may have taken by the Babylonians when the Temple was destroyed. Some legends claim that it was taken to Africa. It appears that once the Temple was built, the Ark of the Covenant lost its power as a religious symbol. Replicas of the ark have been built, but what made the ark the Ark of the Covenant was that it contained the Covenant, especially the Ten Commandments. It may have even served as a legal and religious archive for the Israelites in the days of the Judges.

            Chapter 7 opens with a statement about the return of the Ark and that Israel mourned after the LORD. The relationship between these statements is not clear, and there are some variations in the ancient manuscripts. Were the people mourning for the LORD because the Ark was in Kiriath Jearim instead of at Shiloh? Or was the mourning of the people inspired by the return of the Ark? Or was this a response to the victory of the Philistines that was discussed in the previous chapters? This is one of those situations where the Bible is almost too terse rather than too wordy.

            The key point of the story is clear, though. The people of Israel wanted to renew their covenantal relationship with God. They became aware that they had lost something by not remaining faithful to God. Samuel, the priest of Shiloh, assumes leadership in this moment of national malaise. He judges the people and convicts them of unfaithfulness. He tells them they need to stop mourning and start making the hard decisions that will restore them to God’s favor. They will have to repent and make sacrifices. They will have to put away their idols and serve only the LORD God. This is first mention of Baal and Ashtoreth in I Samuel, but they figure prominently throughout the Old Testament. They were the male and female fertility deities of the Canaanites. Baal, the god of storms and rain, was represented by a bull and Ashtoreth (or Astarte), the goddess of grain and fruit, was a pillar. Farmers in Palestine relied on the cultic practices of Baal and Ashtoreth throughout the agricultural year, much like American farmers used to use the Zodiac in the Almanac. The prevalence of Baal and Ashtoreth worship in ancient Israel is attested by the fact that so much of the OT is devoted to condemning these deities by name. It was the prophets in particular who were most opposed to this polytheism and idolatry, and they judged the rulers of Israel by how well idolatry was suppressed.

            One of the last kings of Judah was named Josiah, and during his reign a copy of the law of Moses was “discovered” in the Temple. It was probably an early version of the book of Deuteronomy, which means “Second Law.” The Book of Deuteronomy emphasizes the idea that the LORD is the only God and Israel must worship the LORD alone. As long as Israel is faithful to the covenant with the LORD, she will be blessed. But if Israel breaks the covenant through idolatry or injustice, the LORD will leave her to the mercy of her enemies. During the exile, Jewish scholars assembled or wrote several books of Jewish history from this Deuteronomic perspective. In particularly, the Book of Judges follows a predictable pattern. The Israelites become idolatrous and “forgive” the LORD. God withdraws his protection and the people are oppressed by their enemies, usually the Philistines. The people cry to the Lord, just as they had in Egypt. He hears their cry and has mercy. He sends a Judge to be the deliver the people for their oppressors and to lead them back into observance of the covenant. After he dies, the people slip back into idolatry and wickedness and are oppressed again.

            The first part of Samuel follows that pattern, more of less, but this is the first mention of Baal and Ashteroth. In response to the great defeat at Ebenezer and the capture of the Ark, Samuel tells the people that they must change their lifestyle. They must sacrifice their Baals, Ashtoreth, and any other idols they may have collection. They need to return to the path of righteousness and start living according to God’s law rather than following their own instincts and appetites. It is this willingness to tell the people the truth that distinguishes biblical prophets from modern politicians. Samuel told the people that a safer and more secure future was going to cost them something, but our politicians pretend that we can confront crises like global warming without paying any kind of price.

Intercession                The people told Samuel they were willing to pay the price of obedience, and so he instructed that they gather at Mizpah where he would pray to God on their behalf. Protestants have a little trouble with this concept of a person acting as a go-between or intercessor with God. Theologically we deal with this by saying that such an intercessor was needed before the coming of Christ, but now we can pray directly to God through Christ our high priest. Clearly that was not the case in the days of Samuel, but I don’t think we should dismiss the idea of an intercessor too quickly. Samuel was not acting as an intercessor for each individual Israelite in their personal needs and concerns. He was the representative of the whole community to God. In many ways, he was assuming the role of a religious symbol by being a living representative of God among the people. He is like the Ark itself in that he is a reminder of the covenant with the LORD. Unlike the Ark, Samuel could communicate directly to the people, tell them what they needed to do, and act on their behalf.

            Pastors and priests still serve as intercessors in churches. One of the primary pastoral functions is to lead the prayers of the people, present the offerings of the people, and to be a living representative of God among the people. One aspect of intercession that has fallen out of favor in recent decades, though, has been the role of the pastor in leading the people into genuine repentance and confession. The call for repentance was so abused by evangelists over the years that people became suspicious of preachers attacking sin. It is rare that a pastor today would do as Samuel did, and help a community of faith recognize that it had strayed from the covenant of grace and lead it in a ritual of genuine repentance and renewal of obedience. We do have prayers of confession and intercessions in times of crisis, but they tend to be so generic as to be worthless. They are written by committee instead of being written by people confronting the fruits of their unrighteousness. We should take a cue from the Israelites of old. They recognized their sinfulness and idolatry when they confronted a national crisis. We will find guidance for how we need to repent in reading our newspapers and watching television, but will our churches and synagogues help us to repent and make the sacrifices we need to make? Or will we continue to justify the idolatry of autonomy and consumerism and selfish ambition?

            Samuel judged the people at Mizpah, which basically means “watchtower” or look-out. It was an important city between Judah and the northern tribes of Israel, and it may have been a early capital city for Israel. We should not picture all of the Israelites gathering at Mizpah any more than we should picture the whole Republican Party gathering in a convention. Not doubt it was the tribal and clan leaders and their families who had come to the great ceremony of renewing the covenant with the LORD. But the Philistines assumed that this was a massing of the Israelite tribal army, and so they sent a force to attack Mizpah. This would be the great test to see if the covenant would endure. Would the people trust in the LORD and would the LORD protect his people?

            Samuel turned to the LORD for help and offered a sacrifice. In a scene worthy of the Iliad, the LORD responded vocally to the sacrifice. As the Philistines prepared to slaughter the people at Mizpah, the heavens and earth shook with thunder. The Israelites discovered that it was not Baal who was the god of storms; it was the LORD who could shake the earth with the sound of his voice. No doubt there was also lightening, rain, and hail. The Philistines panicked. Fear is one of the best weapons in war, and the fear of the LORD came upon the Philistines. The Israelites responded by attacking their enemies and slaughtering them as they ran. Historians and military tacticians might point out that a severe thunderstorm would be more helpful to the type of guerrilla warriors that a tribal society would use against as superior force. Even in our day, it is guerrilla armies that know the terrain can score victors against a superior mechanized army that cannot fight during sandstorms or floods. Theologians will direct our attention away from such mundane matters and praise God for giving victory to those who had renewed their covenant with him.

Ebenezer                    After the great slaughter of the Philistines, Samuel erected a sacred stone near Mizpah and he named it Ebenezer, which means stone of help. You may recall that the earlier defeat of the Israelites had been at a place called Ebenezer. Most scholars think these were two different places, but it is not entirely clear why there would be two Ebenezers. There may be some confusion in the chronology here, but this is a reminder that the Bible does not give us a complete history of Israel. It is interested in the story of Israel and the covenant with the LORD, not with the whole geographical and political history of the region. Whether there was one Ebenezer or two, it is probably intentional that the storyteller included two stories related to the stone of help. Ebenezer was not a stone of help to people who were not obedient to the covenant with the LORD. As long as the priests were corrupt and the people were idolatrous, neither the stone of help or the Ark of the Covenant could bring victory. It was only after they had renewed their dedication to God and chose to serve the LORD alone that the nation was secure. Samuel raised a stone to as a reminder of how the LORD helped Israel that day. It was also a reminder to the people that they have an obligation to serve the LORD and follow his commandments.

After the Victory                   After these events at Mizpah, Samuel was the leader of the nation, and they were saved from the threat of the Philistines. There is some exaggeration in the text in its praise of Samuel, though. As we shall see in the following chapters, the Philistines continued to threaten and attack Israel while Samuel was still alive. Some scholars think that the verses about Samuel’s victory over the Philistines have been relocated in the text. They may have originally referred to David rather than Samuel. What was more important for the story of Samuel is the statement that he judged Israel for the rest of his life. This is said not to praise Samuel, but to praise the people for looking to Samuel as their judge.

            The idea of a judge in ancient Israel is a little hard for modern people to grasp since we have well-established court systems and government offices. The judge was not a king or chieftan, but he was the leader of the tribes. It appears that judges were recognized as wise persons who apply the tribal laws in a just matter without being biased toward one tribe or the next. Judges were also responsible for raising the armies of the tribes to defend the nation. It is not clear how judges were chosen, but they were recognized by the different tribes as men chosen by God to rule. Some of the judges were charismatic figures who assumed the office of judge in times of crisis. Others were military leaders who led the troops into battle. Some of the most famous judges were messianic figures who rescued the people from oppression. At least two of the judges were women. Samuel appears to have been a particularly diligent judge who traveled a circuit to bring justice to the countryside, but the area covered was relatively small. Most of the story of I Samuel takes place in the area of Benjamin and Judah.

            It is interesting that Samuel always returned to his home town of Ramah and that he built an altar there rather than serving at Shiloh where he had been Eli’s servant. Perhaps that was because Shiloh had been destroyed. Or perhaps it is because Samuel now had the freedom to go where he wanted and serve as he thought best. Having been removed from his family and home as a child, he returned to Ramah as a man. This may be taken as a sign that his family ties had not been broken, merely stretched. We don’t know, but perhaps Hannah was still living when Samuel returned and she could see how much good her sacrifice had brought to her nation.

Chapter 8                   Since we have a little time, let’s go ahead and take a look at the beginning of chapter. We are not told a lot about Samuel’s career as a judge. That’s the way it often is in life. So much of our day to day living remains unreported. So much of the work we do is forgotten to history. We aren’t even told about Samuel’s wife, but we assume he had one since he had children. There were two boys, but we don’t know if he had any daughters. Samuel’s sons grew up and lived at Beersheba where they served as judges for the local community. All we know about Abijah and Joel is that they were not like their father. They took bribes and perverted justice. In other words, they were the worst kind of judge. An incompetent judge who cannot separate fact from opinion or truth from lies is bad, but a judge who takes money and rules in favor of the rich against the poor is worse. The only hope the poor have in this world is that an impartial judge will force the powerful to do what is right. Samuel’s sons violated the covenant with the LORD worse than if they had been idolaters. They pretended to be servants of the LORD while serving Mammon.

            One of the overlooked lessons in I Samuel is that righteousness is not a genetic trait, nor is it simply a matter of how one was raised. Samuel became a priest and judge because the sons of Eli turned out to be corrupt and abusive. He, in turn, lived long enough to see that his own sons did not follow his path of righteousness. Each generation, each individual must decide for themselves whether to follow the LORD or give in to selfishness and deceit. The struggle of good and evil is not resolved with a single dramatic victory, such as that at Mizpah, nor through a religious mediator praying for you. Ultimately you and your children must choose a path.

            As for the people of Israel, when they saw the corruption of their leaders, they called for a change in government. They asked Samuel to give them a king, like the other nations. That will be our topic in two weeks.

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  • Suzanne Langley  On March 18, 2008 at 6:23 am

    I have called in on this location on many an instance now but this post is the 1st one that I have ever commented on.

    Congratulations on such a first-rate critique and site. I have found it to be very helpful and educational – I only wish that there were more blogs online like this one.

    I never disappear from this blog without learning anything, from time to time I may feel a tiny bit saddened that I may not agree with a blog article or comeback that has been made. But hey! that is existence and if every one decided to agree on the same thing what a boring old world we would exist in.

    Please maintain your admirable work.

    Having said all of this, and if I’m kindly allowed to continue with my entries I will come again to post on your blog site soon

    Cheers, have a great day and thank you.

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