So the Book of Samuel begins with the origin story of Samuel (of course, he can’t be just an ordinary guy, no, even his birth must be something of a miracle). There was a man with two wives (an issue that God is completely silent on and presumably has no problem with) and he deeply loves one despite the fact that “the Lord had closed her womb”. This is revealing for two reasons, firstly that the Bible thinks that loving your wife despite the fact she can’t have children is unusual enough to merit mention. Evidently, the role of a woman was to have children and if they couldn’t this was seen as a failure.
Secondly, it isn’t seen as a medical condition, but a deliberate action by God. I don’t think anyone today would claim that infertility was caused by God, but the Bible describes God as micro-managing every part of people’s lives. In fact, Samuel’s mother even declares that God is responsible for everything, even “The Lord makes poor and makes rich.” Imagine if this was true. Imagine if people were rich, not based on their contribution to the economy or their skill, but simply because God choose them. Likewise if people were poor not due to bad luck, economic inequality or discrimination, but because God had specifically chosen them. That would completely change our politics, as how could anyone support taxing those God had chosen to be wealthy in order to support those God had decided would live in poverty?
There was a priest named Eli whose sons were corrupt. Did God not realise this would happen if he made the priesthood a hereditary position? The sons neglect their duties and take more than they should from worshippers. Their father tried to criticise them but they would not listen, because supposedly, it was the will of the Lord to put them to death. This is very odd. This means that God deliberately made the sons corrupt in order that he could kill them. Why? Wouldn’t it have been easier and better for everyone to change their ways?
While this is happening Israel goes to war against the Philistines and takes the Ark of the Covenant into battle with them. Considering all the boasts God has made so far about his invincible power, you would think that they will easily win. However, instead Israel suffers a dreadful defeat and 30,000 of its soldiers (including the sons of Eli) are slaughtered.
The victorious Philistines put the captured Ark in the temple of Dagon, but the statue of Dagon falls before the Ark during the night (as if the lesser God was bowing before the more powerful). The Philistines lift the statue back up, but the second night it happens again and this the head and arms are also cut off the statue. So it is moved to Ashdod, but God inflicts the people with tumours and the suffering is so great that the people believe the Ark is cursed. So instead they send it to another town called Gath. But panic and tumours break out there, so it is sent to Ekron where the same happens so it is finally returned to Israel and they even include a guilt offering. It’s suspicious that God can only use his power when no one is looking and is capable of inflicting great suffering (on innocent people) but after the battle is over and not in times of need.
All of this strikes me as odd and it’s clear what really happened. The Israelites went to battle with the supposedly invincible Ark but instead of crushing their enemies, it is the Israelites who are crushed. This poses a serious problem for the priests and many might conclude that there isn’t really a God protecting them. So to save face, they create this story about the corrupt sons of Eli in order to make it seem that the Israelites abandoned God, not the other way around and that God sent the defeat as punishment. They then created the story of the Ark being cursed to make it seem that it still has powers and its eventual return look like a victory, to cover the shame of defeat.
When the Ark is returned to Israel, the first people to see it rejoice. However, instead of this being a happy story God turns it into a horror story. God kills 70 of his own people who were so happy to see his return, because they had looked upon the Ark. And they say God is loving.
At this time Samuel begins preaching and he unites the Israelites, convincing them to stop worshipping false gods like Baal (really? This is like the 5th time this has happened. It really feels like whoever wrote the Bible had a serious lack of imagination and just repeated the same plot again and again.) Seeing this, the Philistines try to attack but God “thundered with a mighty sound” which threw the Philistines into confusion and they fled. The people demand a king (as always the Bible treats the people as if they all think and act the exact same). God and Samuel both agree that this is a bad idea (how convenient) but rather than stopping it, they allow it but predict disaster. Now this is strange, because God never before cared what people thought, he always did whatever he wanted. After all God isn’t a democrat, he doesn’t follow popular opinion.
So Samuel speaks against having a King, arguing that only God is King, therefore having a human as King is tantamount to rejecting God. He argues that the King will make them slaves and they will be sorry, but it will be too late and God won’t save them. God is remarkably unreliable in the Bible, one minute he’s declaring eternal loyalty to the Israelites, the next he’s storming off in a huff over the slightest thing. He spends half his time making grandiose promises and the other half not keeping any of them as punishment for something trivial. As for the King, I suspect that God’s objections were added later to make him look better when the King proved to be a disappointment. I suspect Samuel didn’t want to give up power to someone else and therefore claimed God was against it.
How to you pick a King? That’s a tough question, but God/Samuel’s way is probably the worst. They simply pick the best looking. I swear, I’m not making this up. The man they pick, Saul, is the son of a farmer who is looking for his father’s donkeys when God tells Samuel that he should be King. The only thing we are told about Saul is that he is the handsomest and tallest man in all of Israel. God doesn’t give any explanation of why that makes him qualified or why he choose him. It’s good to see that the Bible is willing to pick ordinary people to be leaders, but wouldn’t it have been better to pick someone who knew anything about ruling? Maybe Samuel wanted to pick someone completely unsuitable in order to show why having Kings is a bad idea.
In any case, God gives Saul another heart (metaphorically) and makes him a new man, which I suppose makes him fit to be King. There is a great meeting of the leaders of Israel but Saul isn’t there. Instead he is found hiding with the baggage (I feel this is a warning sign). However, when he appears, everyone sees how tall he is and accepts him as King (yeah that’s how the Bible describes it).
Saul gets his first challenge when the Ammonites besiege Jabesh and threaten to gouge out the right eye of every inhabitant (like good movie villains). Saul is ploughing his field behind his oxen when he hears this. While it’s great to see a King in touch with the common people, I feel his time would have been better spent, you know, ruling? The people wanted a King for a reason. So Saul raises an army (by threatening to cut up his subjects oxen, not the best method, but it worked) of 330,000 (an obviously extremely exaggerated number, armies wouldn’t this size until the Napoleonic Wars). They completely annihilate the Ammonites. The people rejoice and want to execute anyone who doubted Saul, but he refuses.
Samuel is upset and sends thunder and rain during the wheat harvest as punishment for unclear reasons. I think he’s angry about there being a King, but I don’t see how causing a famine makes things better.
The Philistines come with an army as numerous as the sand on the beach. The Israelites are (understandably) terrified and Saul waits seven days for Samuel to come and make a sacrifice to God. However, after seven days, Samuel still hasn’t arrived and Saul can’t wait forever (because you know, of that massive army) so he offers the sacrifice himself. However, as soon as he’s done, Samuel comes and become furious. He declares that had he not done that, Saul’s kingdom would have lasted forever, but now it won’t last at all. To be honest, I’m on Saul’s side in this argument. I mean if it was that important, Samuel should have been faster or sent someone else. Surely God will understand the gravity of the situation? Why do they even need to make a sacrifice, does God’s protection need to be bought?
However, they are saved by a commando mission by Jonathan, the son of Saul. He sneaks over to the Philistines camp and with a single blow killed 20 men. This caused a great panic and confusion among the Philistines who started killing each other and cut down by the Israelites. The Israelites pursue the enemy and Saul declares that no one should eat until the army is defeated. However, Jonathan didn’t hear so he eats some honey. This being the Bible, no one responds reasonably to this and so Saul declares that he must die. Weirdly, Jonathan also agrees and is fairly unconcerned about being executed. However, the people won’t let the man who just won the battle be executed and so they rescue him. Strangely, that’s the end of the story and no one makes further mention of how the King was about to kill his own son for practically nothing.
For the rest of the series of An Atheist Reads The Bible, click here.