Farewell, For a While, to Chronicles

I’ve had the personal goal for a while, a pretty nerdy and distinctly Old Testament one, of reading through the entire Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible) in its original languages. I began in 1998, at bible college in Queensland, Australia, when I took my first Hebrew subject. I expect to finish this year. I have about eight chapters to go – the final chapters of Ezekiel. I’m no high church guy, and I’m not deliriously excited to be about to read eight or nine chapters of temple dimensions, but amidst the detail I almost always find a gem or two, and I suppose this will be no different.

This morning, I finished 2 Chronicles.

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The Analytics Trap

One million hits on the blog, and #1000 in the Amazon sales ranking!!

That would be nice, wouldn’t it?

Actually, this little blog has had its 1000th view, and the sales ranking for my book just passed through #1 million, going the wrong way!

I remember a colleague at my teaching college, Melbourne School of Theology, saying that she had posted something on FaceBook, and then found herself checking back to see how many ‘likes’ she had received for it. Maybe you’ve done that too. Maybe I have, if I’m honest, checked the analytics for this blog more than once or twice, to see whether anyone reads what I’ve spent hours writing. Perhaps you have too, if you have a blog or other social media presence. Continue reading

Samuel – A Temple Slave?

Two quick questions raised by a single verse, 1 Samuel 1:28, and in fact, a single word…

  1. In response to her answered prayer, Hannah brings the very young Samuel back to the Shiloh temple to be devoted to the LORD’s service for life. Now multiple times in Ezra-Nehemiah, albeit books that narrate a much later time, we encounter a category of the post-exilic population called ‘Nethinim’, the ‘given ones’, apparently meaning a kind of dedicated person, a temple slave of some kind. The word occurs in 1 Chr. 9:2; Ezr. 2:43, 58, 70; 7:7; 8:17, 20; Neh. 3:26, 31; 7:46, 60, 72; 10:29; 11:3, 21, and nowhere else in the Old Testament. Ezra 8:20 attributes the formation of this class of persons to David, though there is no reference to them in narratives of pre-exilic times. So my first question is, should we view the character Samuel in these terms, as one of the ‘given ones’, a ‘nātîn‘ or temple slave? He is certainly something like it, though the formal category may come later.
  2. However, the word for ‘given’ (in all English versions I’ve checked) is different in 1 Samuel 1:28. It is ‘šāʾûl‘. Look familiar? It should, for it is identical to a name that occurs numerous times in the same book from 9:2 and following: Saul. At one level this is odd, because the Hebrew form is the qal passive, which I would expect normally to mean ‘requested’, or ‘asked’. Its meaning in its context can be debated: I haven’t yet looked into it in detail. But my second question is this: Why does the story so carefully connect Samuel to Saul through this distinct anticipation of his name so early in the book? The English reader can’t see it, but it’s obvious in the Hebrew. Samuel himself is the first ‘shaul’ in the book of Samuel. To conclude, here is the BibleWorks chart showing occurrences of this word form in the Old Testament. Aside from its use as Saul’s name, this form is extremely rare. Its occurrence in 1 Samuel 1:28 in description of Samuel is no accident!

'Shaul' in Genesis to 2 Samuel 4'Shaul' in 2 Samuel 5 to end OT

When Prophecy Was Meant to Fail

My title above is a spin on that of a book I long knew about but only read within the last 12 months, Robert Carroll’s When Prophecy Failed, published back in the 80s.  Carroll’s book pointed out a range of OT prophecies that look for all the world unfulfilled.  There are some celebrated examples where he is clearly right, such as the prediction in Ezekiel 26 where the word of God predicts Tyre’s utter destruction by Nebuchadnezzar, which was followed at a later date by the prophecy in the final verses of Ezekiel 29 (vv. 18-21) that offer King Neb Egypt as a consolation prize in place of the still-elusive Tyre, which he was unable to conquer despite a long campaign.

Carroll - When Prophecy Failed

I’ve just seen a reference to it in a fairly recent essay by a scholar I quite enjoy reading, Ronald Clements, ‘Prophecy Interpreted…A Case Study in Jeremiah 26:16-24,’ in Uprooting and Planting: Essays on Jeremiah for Leslie Allen, ed. John Goldingay (New York/London: T&T Clark, 2006), 32-44.  Here’s an apt comment about Carroll’s proposal in a footnote of Clements (p. 35 n. 3):

“When understood as a message of divine warning, prophecy would not be regarded as having “failed” if those who heard it responded in such a way that the threat could be…revoked.”

Here Clements picks up on a truth seen in prophecy throughout the Old Testament and fundamental to Jeremiah: The freedom of God to respond to human beings overrides considerations of the prophet’s predictive reliability.  That is, God is willing to let his prophet be wrong if a threat of doom He has given the prophet to proclaim achieves its main purpose.

That main purpose is not to predict the future.

It is to change the behaviour and attitudes of his people.

If the threat of trouble ahead brings about humility and practical repentance, then the predicted doom need not fall.  Check out this programmatic passage from Jeremiah:

 7  If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed,
8 and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned.
9 And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted,
10 and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.
11 “Now therefore say to the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, ‘This is what the LORD says: Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.’
(Jer 18:7-11 NIV)

An inevitable ramification of this is that the prophet will be left out in the cold, as far as being correct about the future!  But God will not bind himself to his forecast, hypothetical future, if that means being unable to change course in response to the very change the prophetic message he sent was intended to produce!  Theologically, we’re talking about the vital doctrine of the freedom of God.

Oh, and one other key theological issue is at stake: real relationship.  No-one who is utterly unable to respond to the opposite party is really in relationship with that other party.  The portrayed God of the Old Testament is, as our Jeremiah passage so clearly shows, really very willing to change his planned course of action in response to human changes in their relational stance toward him.

This is very profound and very important, and should be a key part of our personal theologies.

For other vivid OT examples of this principle at work, see:

  • The book of Jonah, whose prophetic content is limited to a single verse!  And whose single verse of prophecy turns out not to come true!  And that because it is warning, it is heeded, and the forecast doom is no longer needed!  All to Jonah’s profound displeasure, but let no-one fail to appreciate what a radical and profound little book this is!
  • 1 Sam. 2:30, where the LORD says of Eli’s priestly family:

“Therefore the LORD, the God of Israel, declares: ‘I promised that members of your family would minister before me forever. ‘ But now the LORD declares: ‘Far be it from me! Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained.” (NIV)

  • And Clements’ own example, Jeremiah 26:18-19, where the prophet Micah’s long-past prediction that Jerusalem would be so thoroughly destroyed that it would be like a ploughed rural hilltop is raised as an example of a prophetic word that did not come to pass because its hearers responded in repentance as intended.

There are many others.  The book of Jeremiah makes clear that prophetic prediction was not always meant to fail.  There comes a clear turning point in Jeremiah’s ministry where the forecast doom was no longer a warning, but an inevitability, and those who tried to avoid the sentence of God, e.g. by resisting the Babylonian advance, were just prolonging their own pain.  But this other side of the prophetic coin might just open our minds to the multifaceted purposes of OT prophecy, and to a neglected side of biblical theology.

David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11 – Looking Backwards and Forwards

A couple of interesting things about this pretty gripping chapter…

  1. You’ve probably picked it up, but there’s an immediate hint that “in the spring when kings go off to war,” David’s choice to stay back home provided some idle hands, or eyes, for the devil to play with. This is notwithstanding the fact that 2 Sam. 21:15-17 probably explains why David stayed back: they had nearly lost him in battle once he wasn’t as young as he used to be!
  2. Bathsheba is named once only as the story gets underway, 2 Sam. 11:3. Then she becomes simply “the wife of Uriah the Hittite” for the remainder of the story, until finally, the child born of the liaison dies. This penalty paid, in a sense, there is some kind of expiation or cleansing, and Bathsheba gets her name back in the very next verse after that episode, 2 Sam. 12:24.
  3. Uriah was, we find out later, one of Israel’s war heroes. In the list of the 30 mighty men in 2 Sam. 23:24-39, Uriah is revealed as the very last name of the thirty – not because he was below #29, I suspect, but as a last-minute sucker-punch. David didn’t just have a Joe Average soldier killed. He made sure a war hero was hung out to dry.
  4. It was the archers that got him from the wall, 2 Sam. 11:20. The death scene of Boromir in the first LOTR movie about captures the feel. Uriah leads the charge on the wall as instructed, then looks around to find that he’s left alone.
  5. Uriah’s a Hittite. I.e. not a native Israelite! But that’s true of many others in this story, including a bucketload of Israel’s fighting men around this time.
  6. When David has Uriah killed “with the sword of the Ammonites” (2 Sam. 12:10), he learned that method from best. Saul, that is. Saul did his best to kill David with the sword of the Philistines (1 Sam. 18:17). A bit hypocritical of David to turn around and emulate Saul’s style, after having felt the sharp end of it.
  7. Important to the following story is the prophet Nathan’s pronouncement, “the sword will never depart from your house” (2 Sam. 12:10). This is our guide to interpreting all of the following troubles in David’s family, from Amnon’s decision to take the woman he jolly well feels like, in imitation of Dad (2 Sam. 13:1-19) and Absalom’s subsequent revenge killing of Amnon on down.
  8. I believe the critical turning point comes when Joab, always handy with a sharp instrument, kills the rebel Absalom in defence of David’s throne (2 Sam. 18:14). Now David learns the value of a life. Back when he was brought news of Uriah’s death, David had hypocritically trivialized it:

Don’t let this upset you; the sword devours one as well as another (2 Sam. 11:25).

But when the sword devours his own son, his tune is different:

“The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: “O my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you–O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Sam. 18:33)

The poignancy here is almost painful. I hate to think how a reader who had lost a child might feel. But I think that this is when David has been purged of his trivializing attitude to a life. He cares not a fig for Uriah when he stands in his way, but now he learns that every warrior is someone’s son. I think that at this point David is on the painful path to redemption. He will soon return to Jerusalem, his enemies for the time being defeated. But he will return changed, humbled, educated. He will never again, we think, be so flippant about a life.

Articles of the Temple and the Ark of the Covenant

I realized in preparing to teach about 1-2 Samuel in recent years how important the Ark of the Covenant is in the movement of the story in Samuel.  Along with Samuel, Saul and David, the Ark is another key player.  It is front and centre in 1 Samuel 4, but is captured in battle by the Philistines.  The Israelites are devastated, but the Philistines are plagued, and soon want to get rid of this thing (as in Raiders of the Lost Ark).

The Ark is returned to Israel, causes more trouble, and then from 1 Samuel 7:1 lies quietly…until the key achievement of the new king David’s early reign is to bring it into his new capital, Jerusalem (with more trouble) and installed in a kind of tabernacle or holy shrine there (2 Sam. 6:17).  It leaves the old tribal Israel in the time of the judges, and returns to the new kingdom of Israel under David – a thread binding old to new, and 1 Samuel to 2 Samuel.

Here’s a thought: perhaps the temple articles play a similar role in Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah.  I have to eat tea (Australian lingo for the evening meal) now, so must go.  Stay tuned for part II!