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Chapter 9: Prophet versus King

PROPHET VERSUS KING 

   Prophet: One who speaks for God or for any deity, as the

       inspired revealer or interpreter of his will; one who is held or

       (more loosely) who claims to have this function; an inspired or

       quasi-inspired teacher….One who predicts or foretells what is

       going to happen; a prognosticator, a predictor….The `inspired’

       or accredited spokesman, proclaimer, or preacher of some

       principle, cause, or movement. (Oxford English Dictionary)

 

 

Prophets mediate between the divine and the ordinary. They are important figures in the Old Testament who interpret God’s story to the people and to the leaders of the people. In the Book of Judges the judge of the tribal confederation is often gifted with prophetic powers and able to read God’s story when making decisions that are important to the tribes. Deborah, for example, is able to predict the day for her commander’s victory by being able to read the signs that tell her when the rains are coming. She tells Barak (Judges 4.14), “Up! This day the Lord gives Sisera into your hands. Already the Lord has gone out to battle before you.” And the rains come. Sisera’s chariots are mired down in the “Torrent of Kishon” and the victory goes to Deborah. In what is “the oldest surviving extended fragment of Hebrew literature”[1] Deborah and Barak sing a song of praise to their Lord:

 

For the leaders, the leaders in Israel,

for the people who answered the call, bless ye the Lord.

Hear me, you kings; princes, give ear;

I will sing, I will sing to the Lord.

I will raise a psalm to the Lord

the God of Israel.

O, Lord, at thy setting forth from Seir,

when thou camest marching out of

the plains of Edom,

earth trembled; heaven quaked;

the clouds streamed down in torrents. (Judges 4.2-4)

 

and later we hear “Be proud at heart, you marshals of Israel; you among the people that answered the call, bless ye the Lord.” Deborah’s song is for a particular audience: those “who answered the call.” Not all of the tribes did answer the call, for we learn later in the song that “Gilead stayed beyond Jordan,” that Dan tarried by the ships, and that “Asher lingered by the sea-shore.” Those who did answer the call were rewarded with victory on that day because Deborah knew when to attack to bring the enemy with its heavy chariots into the river bottom to be caught by the sudden rain:

 

The stars fought from heaven,

the stars in their courses fought

against Sisera.

the Torrent of Kishon swept him

away,

the Torrent barred his flight, the

Torrent of Kishon;

march on in might, my soul! (Judges 5.20-21)

 

A few stanzas later we are told of the other prophecy by Deborah which comes to pass. She had told Barak that the day would belong to a woman, and indeed it does, as we read in the King James translation:

 

24. Blessed above women shall Jael the wife of

Heber the Kenite be, blessed shall she be above

women in the tent.

25. He asked water, and she gave him milk;

she brought forth butter in a lordly dish.

26. She put her hand to the nail, and her right

 

 

hand to the workmen’s hammer; and with the

hammer she smote Sisera, she smote off

his head when she had pierced and stricken

through his temples.

27. At her feet he bowed, he fell, he lay down;

at her feet he bowed, he fell: where he bowed,

there he fell down dead.

(Judges 5.24-27)

 

Sisera dies at the hands of a woman and the prophesy comes true: the day indeed belongs to a woman as Deborah had said. Sisera, the great champion, the warrior in command of far superior forces is vanquished in a tent by a workman’s hammer weilded by a woman.

 

Deborah, as Judge, is unable to get all of the tribes to answer the call to arms, but with the forces at hand and a brilliant battle plan (there is even the suggestion that she employs a spy) which depends on using the tactics of guerilla warfare to challenge a larger and heavily armed enemy, she is victorious. After drawing the chariots of Sisera into the valley for what they would expect to be a “duck-shoot” she awaits the sudden rain which will eliminate the advantage of Canaanite light armor.

 

Deborah’s inability to raise an army from all the tribes signals one of the weaknesses of the political organization of a loose confederation and sets the stage for the cry for a king which we hear in the first book of Samuel. Samuel is the last of the judges and the first important prophet. The two books of Samuel and the two books of Kings form a single text in the ancient Greek Bible entitled “Concerning the Kingdoms.” Modern texts break this section into the four books we presently have which tell of the establishment of David’s dynasty and the consecration of the Solomonic Temple.

 

`Samuel’ means “name of God,” and Samuel’s birth narrative is one which emphasizes his special status. His father Elkanah has two wives, Hannah and Peninnah. “Peninnah had children, but Hannah was childless.” Hannah is childless and is tormented by her “rival.” She weeps and refuses to eat. One year while the family is at Shiloh for sacrifices, Hannah goes to the temple to pray for help. She prays:

 

O, Lord of Hosts, if thou wilt deign to take notice of my trouble

and remember me, if thou wilt not forget but grant me offspring,

then I will give the child to the Lord for his whole life, and no razor

shall touch his head. (1 Sam. 1.11)

 

As Hannah prays her lips move and Eli the priest sees her and is deceived: he thinks she is a drunken woman and orders her away from the temple. Hannah is not to be ordered away by anyone; she refuses and announces her innocence, forcing Eli to apologize   to her for not seeing her true condition. She gives birth to a son. She takes him to Shiloh to serve the Lord. Shiloh is an important center before the age of the monarchy, but not much is heard of it after the monarchy is established. Now the narrative places the young Samuel under Eli’s control as his master. From the time of the bondage in Egypt God had charged Eli’s family with the priesthood for all the tribes of Israel, had given them the special task “to mount the steps of my altar, to burn sacrifices, and to carry the ephod before me”; and “assigned all the food-offerings to [Eli’s]   family.” Although God had promised that Eli’s family would fulfill this function for all time there is a narrative requirement here to elevate Samuel to this high position. We are told that Eli’s sons have been stealing the best parts of the offerings (these sons will literally eat Eli out of house and home) for themselves and that Eli has not disciplined them properly – thus showing that he honors his sons more than he honors his Lord. Eli is visited by “a man of God” and told that his fortunes will change. God is looking   for a new and faithful priest – he is choosing again. The story is resumed, with a “time passes” indicator, in Chapter 3: “So the child Samuel was in the Lord’s service under his master Eli.” Next we can hear the narrator’s voice as it breaks through the frame: “Now in those days the word of the Lord was seldom heard, and no vision was granted,” which is followed by a vision given to Samuel.

 

The story so far gives us a special kind of man. Special signs surround Samuel’s birth: a childless woman suddenly and unexpectedly has her prayer for a child answered, at the birth of the child special gifts are given, and the child is marked in a special way. All of these are images of uniqueness, are intended to show that Samuel is the chosen one. Next we see that Samuel is able to have visions, to make direct contact with the Lord. In a charming story we are told how Samuel hears the Lord call him but mistakes that call for the more natural call of his master Eli. On three occasions Samuel runs to Eli saying “You called me, here I am.” Eli finally realizes that it is the Lord calling the child and tells Samuel how to respond. Samuel’s first message from the “other side” is not a pleasant one to report to his earthly master:

 

The Lord said, `Soon I shall do something in Israel which will ring

in the ears of all who hear it. When that day comes I will make

good every word I have spoken against Eli and his family from

beginning to end. You are to tell him that my judgement on his

house shall stand for ever because he knew of his sons’ blasphemies

against God and did not rebuke them. Therefore I have sworn to

the family of Eli that their abuse of sacrifices and offerings shall

never be expiated.

 

but report it he must, even though he is a frightened messenger. Eli’s response at hearing that he and his family are permanently unemployed and in serious danger is calm and resolute: “The Lord must do what is good in his eyes.” One prophet is gone, a new prophet is chosen: “As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him, and none of his words went unfulfilled. From Dan to Beer-sheba, all Israel recognized that Samuel was confirmed as prophet of the Lord.” The piece starts with Eli being unable to recognize that Hannah is the vehicle for a special birth and ends with all Israel recognizing that Samuel is the prophet of the Lord. There is a secret plan to be revealed to a chosen few – a plan for the chosen tribes of Israel – this bigger narrative also must have plot and story-line where events are related causally and the intent of the Author is revealed in the story.

 

Chapters 4 through 6 do not mention Samuel but instead relate the primitive story of the Ark of the Lord.[2] Samuel has authority and legitimacy as established by: his birth in answer to a prayer, his birth to a childless woman, his special identifying feature (no razor shall touch his head), and by the affirming instance of having a vision of the Lord at a time when “the word of the Lord was seldom heard.” Now the narrative shifts to finish the story of Eli and his sons. The Israelites face the Philistines near Aphek and are routed by the Philistines who kill about four thousand of the Israelites. After returning to camp from the killing fields, the Israelites confer with their elders who come to believe that the defeat is because their army did not have the Ark of the Lord in its midst. They send to Shiloh to get the ark (referred to here also as “The Ark of the Covenant of the Lord”) and when it comes into camp there is a great shout from the Israelite army, now sure of its victory. The Philistines are afraid and cry out, “A god has come into the camp. We are lost!…Be men and fight!” And fight they do. We are told simply, “The Philistines then gave battle, and the Israelites were defeated and fled to their homes.” The Ark of the Lord is taken by the victorious Philistines and Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas, are killed. As prophesied in the vision that Samuel reported to Eli, Eli’s line is ended – his sons are dead. In a parallel to the Marathon story of Greek literature, here a Benjamite runs from the battlefield to Shiloh with news of the defeat and the stunning loss of the Ark. Eli is seated by the gate to the city in a throne, and is so shocked by the combination of news of the death of his sons and the loss of the Ark that he falls over backwards and breaks his neck.

 

These are dark days. Not only is the Ark gone to the hated Philistines but the long time keeper of the Ark at Shiloh is dead, and his family almost erased from the earth. The Philistines, meanwhile, take their prize to Ashdod and place it in the temple of their god, Dagon. Here we are shown the power of the Ark when it is placed next to a competing god. “When the people of Ashdod rose next morning, there was Dagon fallen face downwards before the Ark of the Lord; so they took him and put him back in his place.” But the next morning Dagon has been unseated again – and his fall from the throne has broken his head and his two hands and now he lies broken at the feet of the Ark of the Lord.[3] Yahweh’s power destroys Dagon. Though Israel has been defeated by the Philistines, their god has defeated the god of the Philistines. As Simone de Beauvoir writes in one of her novels, “When a god falls, he does not become merely a man; he becomes a fraud.” And the Philistines will pay. Rats swarm over the Philistine territory; people and animals are stricken with tumours. Death and destruction hits the city like the Egyptian plagues used by the Hebrew god in his struggle with the Pharaoh. Finally, in desperation, the Philistine princes realize it is the Ark that is responsible for the death and destruction in their midst, and cry out, “Send the Ark of God of Israel away; let it go back to its own place, or it will be the death of us all.”

 

Although the armies of Israel have been unable to defeat the Philistine armies, their god, in the form of the Ark of the Lord has defeated Dagon and the people of Philistine. This God of Israel is powerful, destructive, and the story shows us that the defeat of enemies is always the doing of the Lord and has nothing to do with the armies of the Israelites. Victory is the Lord’s, and so is defeat. Some plan is present for the Israelites – a plan which is not easily seen or understood, but a plan to be manifest by their god in time and in his own way. The Ark of the Lord is the perfect image for this portable god who is still looking for a permanent home for his chosen people. Power without limit, destruction arbitrarily delivered, a plan that can be penetrated by no one – “no one is safe in the presence of the Lord.”

 

The Philistine story is finished once the Ark is returned to the Israelites, but the Ark’s power is still dangerous, as witnessed in the report, “the sons of Jeconiah did not rejoice … when they welcomed the Ark of the Lord” and the Lord struck down seventy of them. The men of Beth-shemesh respond: “No one is safe in the presence of the Lord” and send a message to Kiriath-jearim,[4] “The Philistines have returned the Ark of the Lord; come down and take charge of it.” The Ark finally finds a home and a custodian and remains in Kiriath-jearim for several years. It will be moved again to Jerusalem several years later (2 Sam. ch. 6). During this time the Ark and what it stands for are far removed from the lives of the Hebrews, who have taken up the wor- ship of Baal and Astarte, Canaanite fertility gods. A transition, “So for a long while…” reminds us that time has passed and we are told once again of Samuel. When the Israelites decide to return to the worship of their god, it is Samuel who addresses the whole nation: “If your return to the Lord is wholehearted, banish the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth[5] from your shrines; turn to the Lord with heart and mind, and worship him alone, and he will deliver you from the Philistines.” This is a refrain we have heard before. If your faith is strong enough then your reward will be …. And what is implied in the text is that if the reward is not forthcoming then it is the people’s fault for not having enough faith. As we have seen this argument is fatally flawed. Samuel rises to power at this point in the narrative, and in an assembly of all the tribes at Mizpah he exhibits his special powers of prophesy by fasting and interceding with the Lord for the Israelites who confess their sins in a day long prayer meeting. Now when the Philistines advance the Lord thunders out at them, and his chosen people are able to pursue and slaughter them. This narrative is the Hebrew writer’s way of giving us the events of hundreds of years of struggle between the peoples who were established in the area and the encroaching tribes of Israel, who were eventually to occupy the land and to form it into a country. We are reminded of the opening story in Genesis where formlessness is given form in the act of creation – in Exodus, the Book of Judges, and here too we see images of a crowd of individuals being formed into a congregation and then into a nation – a nation which, like the others around it, wants a king to rule it.

 

“Samuel acted as judge in Israel as long as he lived,” and appointed his sons to be judges in his older years. His sons did not follow in his footsteps, however, and took bribes and profited from their judgeships. The Israelite response is to ask for a king. In what follows we see a hint of the conflict between the monarchist and anti-monarchist positions expressed in the story. Samuel warns the people that a king will take taxes from them and will enforce a universal draft when he needs soldiers. Their sons will serve in the army whether they want to or not. The people refuse to heed this warning and cry again for a king – “a king to govern us, to lead us out to war and fight our battles.” After hearing the will of the people Samuel confers with his Lord and is instructed to give them a king. The Lord reads the peoples’ will as a rejection of his kingship and there is a sense of jealousy in his acceptance of the new relationship between the tribes. The loose confederation of the judges is about to be replaced by a new political arrangement, a centralized monarchy. Samuel has served as a transition between the judges and the kings. Like him Saul will serve as a transition between the time of the power of the priests and the time of the power of the kings. Compare the relationship between Saul and Samuel with the relationship between David and Nathan to see in narrative terms the shift in power from the priest/prophet/judge to the king, or from church to state.

 

After some appropriate prophetly mumbo-jumbo in the form of signs and raptures, Samuel anoints Saul as king of Israel. Saul is anointed, appointed and installed. We are shown how this is to be played out. First Samuel anoints Saul in the name of the Lord as the one chosen by the Lord to be the king. Then we are shown the appointment which is by lot. The tribe of Benjamin is selected by lot and then the family of Matri is chosen by lot, and finally from that family Saul is chosen by lot. When he is chosen he stands forth in the crowd as special. He is a head taller than anyone else. Once again the recurring theme of chosenness is built right into the narrative. Saul is from the Benjamite tribe which is the smallest tribe of the twelve tribes and thus his choice is also politically astute. It is doubtful that a king   from the larger tribes would be acceptable, but a Benjamite, like today’s selection of Secretary-General of the United Nations, must come from a small tribe. Finally we read another version of the choice of Saul, for after Saul’s stunning victory over the Ammonites (ch. 11) the people cry out to have this victorious warrior as their king: “So they all went to Gilgal and invested Saul there as king in the presence of the Lord, sacrificing shared-offerings before the Lord; and Saul and all the Israelites celebrated the occasion with great joy.” Unfortunately for Saul, this great joy will soon turn to bitter despair, for though he reigns over Israel for twenty-two years (we are told in 1 Sam. 13.1), he spends the last several years out of favour with the Lord, devoured by fear, jealousy and evil spirits, torn between hatred and love for David, and unsure of his power.

 

Many traditions are at play in the narrative. We read of Samuel’s special birth and of his commitment to the Lord which emphasizes the unpredictability of the choice of the Lord. We are told of Samuel’s visions and shown how he will replace Eli as the prophet of the Lord, but we are told almost nothing of his years as a judge for the tribes of Israel. 1 Samuel concerns itself with Saul and David. Samuel plays a small part in the narrative although his name is attached to the final text. Although Samuel has a small part in the story-line he serves a major part in the official line: he is the reader of the higher text, the reader of the Lord’s plan; he will provide the current reader with the correct interpretation. The correct interpretation, Samuel’s story tells us, is that the Lord is behind all of the events of impor- tance in the history of the chosen tribes. Yahweh will choose to allow the desire of the people for a king even though he is their king. Yahweh will choose Saul; will turn away from him. Yahweh will choose David. The overlay of the Samuel story gives us motives and reasons for the events described in the Saul and David stories. Imagine for a moment cutting out the story of Samuel from the book of Samuel. How much havoc would such an incision cause?

 

The first important act of Samuel is to select a king when the people cry out for one. We read of Samuel going alone to anoint the one that the Lord has chosen. The choice of the Lord is revealed in a strictly arbitrary way to Samuel. The real king is not so easy to pick out for mere mortals, but Yahweh can see deeper than humans and his choice will be the best. None of the Israelites would have selected their first king from the smallest tribe – the tribe of Benjamin, only Yahweh could see how the virtues of Saul shone out from his humble beginnings “from the smallest of the tribes of Israel” and from a family which “is the least important of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin.” Samuel’s second important act is to kill Agag when Saul has failed to carry out the orders of the Lord completely and with dispatch. Saul’s failure to obey (the original sin) loses him the favour of the Lord, and it is Samuel who provides us with this reading of the events.[6] Samuel stands between the Lord and his people reading the “text,” which contains the Lord’s intentions, to the people. He also stands between the text and us – providing a reading which makes sense of the narrative from a particular point of view. Samuel’s function in the story is clear. But is it necessary?

 

No. Everything that he provides us is also given in another way in the narrative. His choice of Saul as first king can be explained without divine intervention in a straight forward manner. There are good reasons to choose Saul – reasons given in the story: Saul is a head taller than anyone else, a useful characteristic for a warrior king; he is selected by lot, a way of indicating that everyone had an equal chance; he is from the smallest tribe,[7] a way of placating the larger tribes, each of whom would have had its favourite candidate who would have been unacceptable to the other; he wins a decisive battle against the Philistines, an act that is at the center of the desire for a king. In other words it is possible to read the story in a realistic manner without the introduction of a puppet master who is controlling the strings which cause the actors to move. Samuel’s function in the story is to offer a reading of the events of the story, a reading which proclaims the intentions and plans of Yah- weh. Take that away and all that is lost is the official line.

 

Saul’s story is a tragic one. He is chosen by Yahweh as the first king, given the task of uniting a loose confederation of tribes while fighting against the established and well armed Philistines, and is to do this while still under the direct control of the prophet Samuel, who is opposed to the monarchy. Saul is a brave warrior and leader who is capable of making decisions and acting quickly. These very characteristics which make him a strong king are also his downfall. After one battle with the Philistines he and his army are pursuing the enemy from Michmash to Aijalon. “But the people were so faint with hunger that they turned to plunder and seized sheep, cattle, and bullocks; they slaughtered them on the ground, and ate the meat with the blood in it.” (1 Sam. 14.32) When Saul is told that the people are breaking the dietary rules of Yahweh he immediately acts. He has a large stone rolled into camp and set up as a temporary slaughtering place to drain the blood and purify the meat. In doing so he takes on a priestly function. This is the beginning of his downfall. His major sin, however, is the   sin of the stories of the Old Testament: he disobeys. Told to `Spare no one’ in the battle against the Amalekites, Saul and his army spare the king and the best of the sheep and cattle. For this he loses Yahweh’s favour. Remember that commandment: “Thou shalt not kill”?

 

Yahweh, the god of choices, now chooses again. He chooses David: “Then the spirit of the Lord came upon David and was with him from that day onwards.” Several traditions converge in the David story. One has it that David is brought to Saul as a musician to provide Saul relief from his bouts with depression. In this story David kills Goliath in the most famous “underdog wins against incredible odds” story in literature. Confusion arises when a second strand of the story has Saul asking Abner, his commander-in-chief, who the boy David is, after we have been told that David is loved by Saul. In any case David and Saul’s son, Jonathan, become friends bound together by love. This friendship proves important in the David story as on several occasions Jonathan assists David in his struggle against Saul. And what is the nature of the struggle? David has been blessed by the Lord and will be king. But Saul is king. The marvellous story of David’s ascendancy to the throne is the stuff of movies. He is in constant danger; he has the opportunity on two occasions to kill Saul but he does not;[8] he is the leader of a guerrilla band living in the hills; he hires out to the enemy kings, but never fights against the Israelites; he is a powerful sexual force who can turn Abigail’s head and steal her from her husband; he is cunning, brave, powerful, and has stones. David has all the quali- ties (we are told) of the early patriarchs: he has the tenacity and strength of Jacob, the vision and wisdom of Joseph, the loyalty of Abraham, and the sexual appetite of all of them put together. It is only fitting that in his death bed the cure offered by his attendants is to place a young virgin in bed with him. They expect to see David get up once more.

 

David triumphs by the end of 1 Samuel. Samuel is dead. Saul is dead. Long live King David.

 

At the end of 1 Samuel we are told that Saul commits suicide by falling on his sword. At the beginning of 2 Samuel we are told of an Amalekite who comes to David and tells of the defeat of the Israelites and the death of Saul and Jonathan. This man claims to have killed Saul after seeing him “leaning on his spear with the chariots and horsemen closing in upon him.” Is this an example of a contradictory report? One page has Saul falling on his sword and dying and the next has him falling on his spear and not dying. How are we to read this seeming discrepancy? The Amalekite is obviously a mercenary in the Israelite army. He comes to David hoping to be rewarded for killing the old king. Expecting a reward he gets killed. This mercenary does not see that though the death of Saul may be in David’s interest, the murder of the king is not in David’s interest. “How is it,” said David, “that you were not afraid to raise your hand to slay the Lord’s anointed?” The Amalekite’s boastful lie, offered as a calculated attempt at currying favour, is his death warrant. “Your blood be on your own head,” says David, “for out of your own mouth you condemned yourself when you said, `I killed the Lord’s anointed.'” What follows is the famous lament of David: (King James, 2 Sam.1.19-27)

 

19. The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy

high places: how are the mighty fallen!

20. Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the

streets of Askelon; lest the daughters of the

Philistines rejoice, lest the daughters of the

uncircumcised triumph.

21. Ye mountains of Gilboa, let there be no

dew, neither let there be rain, upon you, not

fields of offerings: for there the shield of the

mighty is vilely cast away, the shield of Saul, as

though he had not been anointed with oil.

 

 

 

22. From the blood of the slain, from the fat

of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan turned not

back, and the sword of Saul returned not empty.

 

23. Saul and Jonathan were lovely and pleasant

in their lives, and in their death they were not

divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were

stronger than lions.

 

24. Ye daughters of Israel, weep over Saul,

who clothed you in scarlet, with other delights,

who put on ornaments of gold upon your apparel.

 

25. How are the mighty fallen in the midst of

the battle! O Jonathan, thou wast slain in thine

high places.

 

26. I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan:

very pleasant hast thou been unto me:

thy love to me was wonderful,passing the love

of women.

 

27. How are the mighty fallen, and the weapons

of war perished!

 

 

 

This dirge over Saul and Jonathan is to be taught to the people of Judah. It is a fine lyric poem, a lament on the deaths of these two who have been so intimately involved in David’s life. It opens with a greeting to Saul and immediately expands that to include all who have fallen. “Laid low”, “fallen”, “death” are keys words in the opening which are picked up again in the closing pair of lines, where the men of war are no more than the armour they have left behind on the killing field. Let no enemy know of this downfall, for their rejoicing and exulting at the deaths of these heroes would be an insult to their memories. Let not the rains fall on the hills that bear their shields so that rust cannot wear away all that is left of them: their armour, weapons and shields. These men, powerful in life, are now reduced to mere tools, but their deeds and their spirits live on for they “were swifter than eagles, stronger than lions.” In those images Saul and Jonathan rise above the Hills of Gilboa and become not only objects of lament but also subjects of love. David the new king is magnanimous in spirit and sensitive to the requirements of a good story. We stand with King David at the high point of Israelite Old Testament history. King David will soon unite the tribes and lift them on eagles’ wings to the apex of their historic relationship with Yahweh: the promised land has been achieved.

 

David’s story completes the transition from judges to kings. The Israelite cry for a king has been answered. Samuel, who, as we have seen, reads the Lord’s story, is the last of the prophet/judges and the administration of the nation is now centralized in the hands of a divine-king. While Saul was constantly under the control of Samuel, not so with David. David’s power is complete. He will turn to the priest/prophet for advice and will be brought up short for his more outrageous behaviour, but he is in command. “David came to the throne at the age of thirty and reigned for forty years. In Hebron he had ruled over Judah for seven years and a half, and for thirty-three years he reigned in Jerusalem over Israel and Judah together.” (2 Sam. 5.4)

 

Samuel’s story mediates between the “divine” and “history,” offering us a reading of Yahweh’s intentions in the unfolding of history in time. When Saul, in despair, goes to the Witch of Endor (1 Sam. 28) in an attempt to contact Samuel we see that Samuel, even in death, continues to “read” the future and to give a causal explanation of events. His spirit says to Saul:

 

Why have you disturbed me and brought me up?…You have not

obeyed the Lord, or executed the judgment of his fury against the

Amalekites; that is why he has done this to you today. For the same

reason the Lord will let your people Israel fall into the hands of the

Philistines and, what is more, tomorrow you and your sons shall be

with me.

 

Samuel the prophet can read the intentions of the Lord, and the proof of his reading will be in the accuracy of his predictions. Indeed, the story tells us that the next day Saul and his sons are killed and the Philistines are victorious. The very structure of the story proclaims the status of Samuel, and yet it is obvious here as before that the privileged position offered by writing about the past is presented as a knowledge of the future. One of the functions of prophets is to “read” the intentions of the gods and to provide us with reasons for our misfortunes – reasons which in the Old Testament most often turn out to be some form of disobedience. But Samuel is small potatoes compared to the prophets to follow.

 

 

THE TEST AT MOUNT CARMEL

 

 

The establishment of David’s dynasty and the building of

Solomon’s Temple bring to a completion the Lord’s work of

establishing Israel in Canaan…Israel’s prosperity has a

condition, however: that the Lord’s commandments be carefully

obeyed. Hence, the rest of Kings tells how disaster finally

came upon the Israelite kingdoms through their failure to meet

that condition. While individual kings were guilty of various

offenses, two particular violations of the Lord’s cultic

requirements condemned the two kingdoms. In the Northern

Kingdom of Israel, the violation was the “sin” of Jeroboam I,

namely, his establishment of the cult of the golden calves at

Bethel…In Judah, the violation was permitting the local

sanctuaries, called the hill-shrines, to continue after the Temple

was built…(Headnote p. 349, New English Bible).

 

 

The story in 1 Kings 1 that has Nathan talking to the dying King David about the succession rights emphasizes the power shift from prophet to king. When Saul went to the witch of En-dor (1 Sam. 28) and had her call up Samuel from the dead we saw how Saul responded: “Then Saul knew it was Samuel, and he bowed low with his face to the ground, and prostrated himself.” At David’s death bed it is Nathan who prostrates himself before “the presence” of King David: “The king was told that Nathan was there; he came into the presence and prostrated himself with his face to the ground.” This yielding image indicates in the action of prostration the shift in power relationships between the prophets and the kings. King David enjoys the support of Yahweh, of course, and is a king by “divine right.”

 

David and Solomon rule over the United Kingdom for some eighty years; the period is now known as the golden age of Israel (c1010 B.C.E. to c931 B.C.E.). David’s capture of Jerusalem, his choice of Jerusalem as the capital, and Solomon’s construction of the Temple in Jerusalem signal the end of the story of the nomadic chosen people and the fulfillment of the covenant promise for   land. Now the Hebrews have a permanent location for the Ark of the Covenant, a king to offer central administration, and a settled way of life in the promised land. Solomon not only builds a Temple for the Ark but he also fortifies many of the cities in the kingdom by building thick walls such as are seen at Megiddo, Hazor, and Gezer. These are the golden years: we read of the wealth of Solomon imaged in gold and thousands of concubines, in massive building projects employing thousands of slaves, in visits to the king made by emissaries from other countries and by the Queen of Sheba herself. But at his death in 931 B.C.E. the unification of the Hebrew tribal groups (traditionally 12 in number) falls apart – Kings David and Solomon will be the only kings to reign over a union of all the tribes. Much of the Old Testament is written during the years of civil strife, invasion, and exile which follows the death of Solomon. How could a nation ruled by Yahweh’s chosen ones decline so rapidly? What had gone wrong? These “chosen people” are led out of slavery, purified in the desert, given a “constitution,” provided with a chosen king, enjoy the results for some eighty years, and then tear themselves apart in internal quarrels about shrines. Israel and Judah seem unable to agree on one reading of the covenant text – competing readings break them apart into different bunches, each claiming to have the Truth. This conclusion to the “promised land” narrative is inevitable; it is to be found in the concept of “chosenness” – choosing without reasons is destructive. Today we would call it privileging.[9] All of those arbitrary choices made by Yahweh throughout the stories of the Old Testament produce an attitude of intolerant arrogance as each tribe asserts its own special claim to be the chosen vessel of the proclaimed divine. The united kingdom crumbles because the tribes cannot agree on where and how to worship their god.[10] The prophets, as opposed to the royal priests, sympathized with the northern desire to reduce the power of the kings and the Temple priests. As the monarchy falters the prophets return to prominence.

 

Consider Elijah the Tishbite: a series of stories about Elijah enter the narrative at 1 Kings 16 and relate the first stages of the overthrow of the dynasty of Omri. Elijah appears as a mature and complete figure who announces his authenticity to King Ahab by way of a nature miracle: he will cause a drought to occur in Israel, a drought which will eliminate both rain and dew until Elijah gives the word. On command from Yahweh he goes to Za- rephath where he is told that a widow has been instructed to feed him. He goes; he meets the widow. She tells him, in response to his request for food, “I have no food to sustain me except a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a flask.” Elijah tells her to make a small cake for him from the scarce supplies, and she does. But the food is not used up, for “the jar of flour did not give out nor did the flask of oil fail,” and “there was food for him and for her and for her family for a long time.” After some time the son of this woman fell ill and his breathing ceased. The woman is devastated by the loss of her son and blames Elijah for interfering with her life and bringing this sad consequence to her. He takes the boy in his arms, carries him to the roof-chamber, brings him back to life, and announces to the boy’s mother, “Look, your son is alive.”

 

“Now I know for certain that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord on your lips is truth,” she says, having seen his power in the act of bringing her son back to life. Immediately after this the narrative shifts to a larger arena where Elijah will demonstrate to all of the people that he is a prophet of Yahweh, a “true” prophet of the “true” god. In an amazing display of verification as a means of determining truth, Elijah sets up a contest between himself/Yahweh on one side, and King Ahab’s prophets/Baal on the other. Four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal answer the challenge. The test is simplicity itself: “Bring two bulls; let them choose one for themselves, cut it up and lay it on the wood without setting fire to it, and I will prepare the other and lay it on the wood without setting fire to it. You shall invoke your god by name and I will invoke the Lord by name; and the god who answers by fire, he is God.” Here is a real test, a test that looks like a scientific test. The hypothesis is something like this: The real god will have the power to start a fire and will do so on a request from a real prophet. Common sense tells us that fires do not just start spontaneously, but must be ignited by flame. No human hand will provide the ignition, and if the fire bursts out it must be the work of a god. Prediction: the real god will respond to the request of the real prophet by starting a fire to consume the offering.

 

Just before this test is conducted we read of Elijah’s power (through Yahweh) in a series of stories which include nature miracles and a resurrection miracle. Based on the narrative we have no doubt that we are reading about a real and powerful prophet. He is alone against four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal – one voice against a multitude of voices. Just to be sure that the test is accepted as proof of the claim that Yahweh is God, Elijah stacks the deck against himself. After the wood has been laid, the bull prepared for sacrifice, and the trench dug around the altar, he orders the people to soak the wood with water. Not once, but three times, they carry water to the altar and soak the wood and the sacrifice. After the prophets of Baal have cried out to Baal all morning and most of the afternoon to no avail, Elijah tries. He addresses his god, “Lord God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known today that thou art God in Israel.” And the result? “Then the fire of the Lord fell. It consumed the whole-offering, the wood, the stones, and the earth, and licked at the water in the trench.” The prediction comes true at the appropriate time; therefore there is good reason to believe that the hypothesis is true.

 

Does this mean that we have been given evidence for the existence of god? It certainly would count as evidence if it happened. But, of course, this “test,” no matter how objective and fair, is contained in a story, a story which has as its intention the desire to prove that Yahweh is   God. The test is so dramatic, the result so compelling, that we would expect it to be recorded in all sorts of documents. But, alas, none of the four hundred and fifty “prophets” of Baal are left to testify to the miracle, for Elijah has the people of Israel take them down to the river valley below Mount Carmel. “They seized them, and Elijah took them down to the Kishon and slaughtered them there in the valley.” Shortly after this successful display of power Elijah outruns King Ahab’s chariot in a race to return to Jezreel.[11] After a short time in Beersheba hiding from Jezebel, Elijah is given new orders by Yahweh and sets off to anoint a new king and to find a new prophet. He finds Elisha ploughing the fields with twelve pair of oxen, throws his cloak over him and in that way includes him as his new disciple and Yahweh’s new prophet. Elisha leaves his oxen, kisses his mother and father good-bye, slaughters a pair of oxen for the people to eat, and follows Elijah.

 

At the beginning of The Second Book of Kings Elijah is still a “trouble” to Ahaziah, the king of Israel. The king sends a captain and fifty soldiers to get Elijah down from a hill-top where he is sitting. In response to the captain’s orders Elijah says, “If I am a man of God, may fire fall from heaven and consume you and your company!” And we are told, “Fire fell from heaven and consumed the officer and his fifty men.” Look closely at this passage. It is presented as a formal argument. `If P then Q’ and `Q’ therefore `P’. Or,

 

If I am a man of God then fire will consume you and your

company. (premise)

 

Fire consumes you and your company. (premise)

 

Therefore, I am a man of God. (implied conclusion)

 

which can be written:

 

If P then Q

Q

Therefore, P.

 

which is not a valid argument form. (The fallacy it commits is called

`Affirming the Consequent’.)

 

Elijah, the one true prophet, alone against incredible odds, perseveres against the king’s men (in spite of his bad logic!) and fire falls to consume a total of one hundred and two men before Elijah feels safe enough to come down the hill. It is really not so much a matter of logical error here in the story as it is an indication of the writer’s attitudes. These “tests” are not to be taken as verification that god exists, but instead god’s existence is taken for granted, is a given. We see that here, in the logical error, for at no time is it even a question whether or not “I am a man of God” is true. The truth of that “proposi- tion” is given in the story. Read it like this: “Given that God exists, and given that I am a man of God then everything is possible for me. The physically impossible is possible; the ability to destroy is possible; the ability to outrun horses is mine.” In the confusion of the divided kingdom Elijah’s voice must be strong and clear, and one. The centre must hold. Elisha will carry on. “[A]nd suddenly there appeared chariots of fire, which separated one from the other, and Elijah was carried up in the whirlwind to heaven.” The Elijah story looks back to Moses – with Elijah leading the Israelites from the slavery of Baal as Moses led them from the slavery of Pharaoh and with Elisha taking the place of Joshua – and it looks forward to the Jesus story.

 

“The spirit of Elijah has settled on Elisha,” we read, and with it the power to control natural events, to intercede miraculously in the natural order of things, and to deliver life from death. Elijah is taken up by Yahweh in the same geographical area in which Moses was buried (Deut. 34.5-6) tying the two stories together in yet another way. Over and over again we read the fun- damental story of the Hebrews: Israeli disobedience leads to Yahweh’s anger, which leads to Israeli repentance and then to Yahweh’s salvation. The heroes – Moses, Joshua, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha – have access to Yahweh through visions, dreams, and messengers and relate the text of history to the people who do not always pay close attention to the reading they are offered. The hero is always identified in some special way – a special birth, a special sign, a unique physical mark, a special power – so that we readers can identify the true prophet from the false prophet. The story is based on fact; that is, a united kingdom did exist as the high point of the Israelite experience, but it existed for less than eighty years before falling into pieces. The chosen people were to have the Promised Land for all time, but instead had it for two generations. Why did the kingdom fall? The official line tells us: Yahweh offered the promised land; he delivered; the contract demanded obedience on the part of Israel; Israel fell apart; therefore the reason must be that Israel has failed to keep its contractual obligations. In a word, plot. Story is made up of events; plot offers causal connections for those events. Prophets are readers of plot.

 

 

 

[1] Footnote page 255, The New English Bible, Oxford Study Edition.

[2] The Ark of the Lord is a box-throne like object that the Lord of Israel used to manifest his presence. See Exodus 25.22, Numbers 7.890, and Joshua chs. 3-4.

[3] Dagon hasw been broken by the Ark of the Lord, and it is head and hands that are broken. Dagon’s ability to formulate intention and his ability to carry out intention are destroyed.

[4] Kiriath-jearim was located between Jerusalem and Gezer just a few miles east of Jerusalem. The Philistines were also a migrant5 people who had at this time control of the coastal area between the Shephelah and the sea, part of which is now the Gaza Strip. The Philistine cities were Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron. The Philisitnes gave their name to this part of the Canaannite territory as `Palestine’.

[5] Ashtaroth was a cult object representing Astarte, a god of fertility.

[6] Note also that Samuel’s sons are not worthy of following him as judge. There is no other contender for the leadership.

[7] During all of the years of the “cold war” we had no Secretary-General of the United Nations who came from the USA or the USSR. Someone from a “smaller tribe” always filled the position.

[8] It is obviously in David’s interest to maintain the principle of the divine right of the king.

[9] The deconstructionists have pointed to the cultural and hence relative values that are bound up in some of our pairings of terms: truth/fiction, philosophy/literature, male/female, thinking/feeling. If one cannot provide a good argument for valuing one over the other then the privileging is arbitrary.

[10] In addition to religious squabbling there were economic reasons for the split. Solomon’s ambitious building programs tended to “choose” the southern part of the kingdom to the exclusion of the more nomadic northern tribes.

[11] The interesting a popular movie, Chariots of Fire, gets its title from these stories in the Old Testament. The Christian runner, who will not run on Sundays for religious reasons, tells his sister that he “feels the power of the Lord” when he runs, just as Elijah did when he outran Ahab’s chariot. Elijah is taken to heaven by a chariot of fire.

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Chapter 9: Prophet versus King by Robert D. Lane is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.