The Bible in a Year – 30 March

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

30 March. 1 Samuel 15-17

So far we have seen Saul proclaimed as King by God’s decree and filled with the Holy Spirit; but also learnt of his weaknesses, which were impatience and lack of foresight.  In chapter 15 he achieves his greatest military victory to date, but shows another weakness by failing to slaughter the animals as well as the people, as God commanded.  For this his kingship was rejected by God, and the Spirit of God left him.   Leaving aside for now the question of why God commanded the slaughter of innocent civilians and animals as well as soldiers, in this rejection by God we see perhaps the first statement in the Bible (15:22) that obedience to God is what God desires, more than obedience to religious laws.


The boy David from Bethlehem was anointed King in his place by Samuel, but secretly. David goes on to achieve the archetypal giant-slaying feat of killing the heavily armed Goliath with a simple sling and stone, turning the tide of battle against the Philistines.


Saul, we are told, became troubled by an “evil spirit” after his rejection by God, and the boy David – later known as a famous composer of many of religious songs that we call Psalms -plays the lyre to soothe him.  This “evil spirit” may have been depression; but at the end of Chapter 17 when David is brought before Saul after defeating Goliath, Saul appears not to recognise him.  So either the stories have got out of order, or maybe Saul was suffering from dementia? Playing familiar music is often a good way to calm the distress of people with this illness.

The Bible in a Year – 29 March

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29 March. 1 Samuel chapters 13-14

Saul proved himself to be a strong warrior; towards the end of chapter 14 it lists several other tribes that he conquered during his reign. But he had his faults, most of which had a common root in impatience and not thinking of consequences.  At the start of this section, he leads a small and successful raid on the arch enemy, the Philistines. He should not have been surprised that this unprovoked attack ended a period of truce and drew out the full strength of their army, which was better equipped with infantry, cavalry and chariots, while Israel had few weapons of any kind as a result of the Philistines ‘arms embargo’.  Clearly military strategy was not his strong point.  Fortunately God was with the Israelites and they were not defeated.


A second failure as a result of impatience was religious rather than military, when he offered a sacrifice (which only Levites were supposed to do).  Not even a king could offer sacrifice, just as our Queen, although titular head of the Church of England, is not ordained and so may not celebrate communion.


Saul’s third, and nearly most disastrous mistake was to impose a fast on his troops on penalty of death, not realising that his own son was out of the camp at the time and did not hear it.  When Jonathan is found to have broken the fast (and incited others to do so), his father appears more inclined to keep his oath at the expense of his son’s life than to see sense and admit his mistake.  This is not quite the same as Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, as it was not God who put Saul to the test. It is closer to Jephthah’s vow in Judges 11 where his own daughter is unwittingly the subject of her father’s unthinking promise. But it still shows what we would now consider dangerous fanaticism that puts “religious truth” ahead of even one’s own children’s lives.  Fortunately for Jonathan, his fellow soldiers see sense and pay an unspecified ransom to redeem him.


The Bible in a Year – 28 March

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28 March. 1 Samuel chapters 9-12

Two days ago we encountered Samuel as a young boy, dedicated to God by his mother. Yesterday we saw him as a wise leader – not leading his people in battle as other ‘judges’ did, but keeping the peace with his wise judgements. Today we see him hand over leadership as another young man (Saul) is chosen by God to lead his people, this time not as a priest, judge and prophet like Samuel but as a military king, as they wanted.  In what to Saul must have seemed a chance encounter with Samuel, he is anointed as the future king of his country.  Late, he is officially elected (by God’s will made known through the drawing of lots that is, not by democracy as we know it) and crowned in front of representatives of all the tribes. After that, he goes on to lead a successful military campaign against the Ammonites.


But in between the intimate personal encounter when he is told of God’s choice (confirmed by a prophecy fulfilled in his own life), and the public event, Saul is sent by Samuel to encounter the ecstatic prophets at Gibeah, where he is caught up in their ecstasy himself.  In modern Christian terms we would say he was “filled (or baptised) with the Holy Spirit”.  The coming of the Spirit on a person is usually understood as an equipping for service,  a giving of gifts or talents from God that they were not born with, for the purpose of making God’s ways known, or his will done, on earth.


Saul was from a rich family and so presumably would have been educated, but like so many other great Biblical characters (Abraham,  Moses, David and Amos among them) he was a herdsman as a young man – in his case of donkeys rather than sheep.  For all these people, their time alone away from the busy ways of a town, and in nights under the stars, helped them to be open to God’s call, and to his indwelling Spirit.  But he would not have encountered Samuel if his companion (probably a family servant) had not known of him and pointed Saul to him for guidance. So often it is true that one person can, by a single encouraging or corrective word, witness to God’s truth and point another on the right path for their life.

All these elements came together to make Saul the great king that he would become: an education, time spent meditating in solitude, a religious friend who was not afraid to witness to him, the word of prophecy given by someone else, a sacramental anointing, and finally the encounter with God’s spirit of ecstacy.  To quote from John Bell’s hymn “enemy of apathy”:

She dances in fire, startling her spectators,
Waking tongues of ecstasy where dumbness reigned;
She weans and inspires all whose hearts are open,
Nor can she be captured, silenced or restrained.

The Bible in a Year – 27 March

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27 March. 1 Samuel chapters 4-8

These chapters tell of how Israel fought unsuccessfully against the Philistines (their enemies to the west), falsely trusting in the ark of the covenant as assuring God’s presence with them for victory; of the plagues on the Philistines as a result of them capturing the ark, until they sent it back to Israel; and of Samuel’s reign of peace following the death of Eli from shock.


Rather than find a lesson in these ‘big picture’ stories I will pick on one word – Ebenezer (4:1 and 7:12). Just yesterday I saw a Baptist church called Ebenezer Chapel and wondered where the name came from, as I have seen other 19th century chapels of the same name. Now I know.  The footnotes translate it as “Stone of Help”. Presumably the chapel builders, looking for a suitable Biblical name, thought that this would do, partly as their church would be built of stone (actually this one had brick walls, but on a stone foundation).  The other reference may be to one of the names of God, “Rock of Ages”, or perhaps Jesus as the “Cornerstone of the Church”, both of which were popular images in Victorian times, and sometimes still today.


Jesus also told a parable of the men who built their houses, one on sand and the other on rock, and of course when floods came the one on the rock stood firm.  The existence of the rock is not enough though: it still takes work to build on.  Having a personal faith in God, not his mere existence, is what gives a sense of purpose to life that can resist its storms.  The builders of the several Ebenezer churches must have hoped by their labours in building them to inspire a rock-like faith in God in those who would worship there.  Rock of Ages, Stone of Help, help me today when my life seems insecure.


The Bible in a Year – 26 March

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26 March. 1 Samuel chapters 1-3

Hannah is one of the several women in the Bible who are described as barren but are granted a special child by God’s grace.  She has been compared to Mary the mother of Jesus, for a similar song of praise is attributed to them both. Also, both of them were told that their special son had to be dedicated to God. Whereas Mary at least had Jesus with her until he was 30 (although she had been warned she would face the agony of his suffering) Hannah has to give up her child as soon as Samuel is weaned – maybe 1 or 2 years old. Although she had further children, she did not know that at the time she left him in the care of the elderly high priest.  When God calls people to a special task, he often tests their faith.


Samuel himself faced a test of faith at the start of his ministry as a prophet.    Although still only a boy – and no doubt having to show deference to the priest whom he served – the first prophecy he is given is a very unpleasant one for Eli, namely that because of the sins of his own sons, the right to be priests is being taken away from his family.  But Samuel passes the test of a prophet of “speaking truth to power” and passes on the prophecy rather than hiding or sweetening its message, as many people would be tempted to do.


Whether each of us is called to be a prophet, or a parent making sacrifices for their children, God honours those who put his truth and others before their own needs.

The Bible in a Year – 25 March

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25 March. Judges chapters 19-21

These last three chapters of Judges tell of a very dark day in the history of Israel, when there was no effective government (“there was no King in Israel”) and a very bloody civil war ensues, set off (as wars often are) by one incident. That incident is bad enough – it reads like a repeat of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, with the men of the town (Gibeah of the tribe of Benjamin) demanding to rape a male visitor, and his host, himself a stranger in the town, refusing, offering a woman instead.  But there the similarity ends: in Sodom, the angel intervenes and no-one gets raped, but the whole town and three neighbouring ones are destroyed by God for the sinfulness of which those men’s demand was a sign.  In Gibeah by contrast, the men accept the offer of a woman, and abuse her to death.  Yet no angel intervenes to save her.  Instead, her husband cuts up her body and sends the parts round the country as a sign of how evil the Benjaminites have become and a rallying call to war.


At that stage escalation could have been prevented if the men actually guilty of the attack had been sent out to be killed as a direct punishment for their crime.  But instead their identity is protected, and all-out war between Benjamin and the other tribes ensues, with a knock-on effect with further towns being attacked to provide wives for the few remaining men of Benjamin after all their own womenfolk have been burned in the sacking of Gibeah.   Instead of a few men being punished for their crime, tens of thousands of people are killed on both sides.


What are we to make of this?  The only lesson I can see is that it is always better for people to own up to their crimes and sins, and face the consequences, because otherwise innocent people will get hurt instead.   That holds true from the infant school, where the whole class is “kept in at playtime” because no-one owned up or was named as responsible for some small damage caused, to the international scene where whole countries end up being devastated as the result of no-one wanting to lose face after one incident.  What difference would have been made to recent history if those behind the 9/11 attack had given themselves up, or the compilers of the “dodgy dossier” on Iraq had confessed that their claims were untrue before it came to all-out war?

The Bible in a Year – 24 March

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24 March. Judges chapters 17-18

In these chapters we meet Micah (presumably not the prophet of the same name). The opening story is ambiguous – had he stolen his mother’s money, which seems to be the plain reading of the text, in which case surely she would have chastised him even when he returned it, or had someone else stolen it and he had somehow got it back, which would explain her rejoicing?  But this being one of the periods of widespread idolatry, she makes an idol in thanksgiving.


What is surprising is that through the remainder of these chapters, when first a Levite priest accepts an offer to be priest at this pagan shrine, and then the men of Dan (another tribe of Israel) steal the idol along with its priest, there is no condemnation of them (other than the oft-repeated phrase “every man did what was right in his own eyes”), although idol-worship is consistently the worst of all sins for Jews.  Nor is there condemnation for the men of Dan attacking the peace-loving Phoenecian town of Laish. Why is this?  I don’t know.


The Bible in a Year – 23 March

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23 March. Judges chapters 13-16

This is the story of Samson, probably one of the best known of the ‘judges’. It is a name still given to strong people and powerful machines, for Samson was miraculously given great strength by God.  In fact, his birth itself was miraculous, like that of several other Bible heroes from Isaac to Jesus, and like theirs it was announced by an angel.


When God gives a special gift to someone or predestines them to greatness, their gifts are to be used for God’s purposes and the benefit of humanity. Samson, though, misused his gifts. He acted against the enemy Philistines in an increasing spiral of violence and revenge.  He demonstrated his strength by killing thousands of men single-handed, as well as a lion.


But the best known of the stories is his relationship with Delilah – far from the first woman he had fallen in love with, and treated badly. Three times he lied to her and caused her to bind him up in various ways only to break free from the bonds (presumably what we would now call an S-M relationship). Eventually, a combination of his own pride, and her nagging, caused him to reveal his true secret, and she cut off his long hair which was part of the vow his mother had made before his birth.  It was this breaking of a vow, as well as his misuse of his powers, that caused God to withdraw the gift of superhuman strength.


Throughout the Bible’s account of the dealings of God with people, there is a repeated motif of sin, punishment, repentance and restoration. So it is with Samson. God allows his strength to be exercised once more, this time destroying the building he was in (presumably the temple of Dagon, to demonstrate that he served the true God).  Even if we have misused the gifts God gave us and mistreated other people, repentance and restoration are still possible.


Once again there is a connection with current events. Samson inevitably died with the people he crushed, crying “Let me die with the Philistines”, much as a suicide terrorist today might cry Allahu akhbar”. And sadly, London suffered another such terrorist attack only yesterday.   There is a big difference  between ‘true’ religion and ‘religiously inspired terrorism’ but people are all too easily led from one into the other.

The Bible in a Year – 22 March

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22 March. Judges chapters 10-12

Several more of the ‘judges’ of Israel are listed here, although only Jephthah’s deeds are recounted in detail.  Although the length of each one’s reign is given, it’s sometimes difficult to keep track of the passage of time when reading the historical parts of the Bible.  But we are given a signpost in Jephthah’s statement “While Israel lived in Heshbon and its villages, and in Aroer and its villages, and in all the towns that are along the Arnon, for three hundred years”. After that length of time, the original conquests had become history and needed to be recited to new generations to remind them of how they had come to be where they were.


As always, it’s not easy to see a connection between ancient history and our own time.  But human nature never changes and I did spot one connection. Jephthah was ostracised by his half-brothers and went off to the “land of Tob” (well east of the Jordan) where he gathered a band of outlaws.  But later he was called upon to join them in a common struggle, make peace with them and be their leader.  This week Martin McGuinness died. He too spent his formative years in the political wilderness as an IRA terrorist, but the time came when he came to see that it was in everyone’s interest to renounce violence, make amends with former enemies and lead those who had once rejected him.



The Bible in a Year – 21 March

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21 March. Judges chapter 9

A single chapter that records one of the worst times for the recent settlers in Canaan.  After Gideon had won them peace, instead of accepting a leader appointed by God, they accept Abimelech as their king.  He had led a bloody coup, killing all but one of his 70 half-brothers in order to gain power.  Eventually Abimelech does get killed, once again by the hand of a woman (see Jael, 19 March), but not before further battles and bloodshed.


It’s hard to see anything good in these tales of warfare, internecine struggle and treachery.  But there is one ray of sunshine.  The one survivor among Gideon’s sons, Jothan, it says with restrained understatement, “stood on the top of Mount Gerizim and cried aloud”.  He then tells the “parable of the trees” to those who have supported Abimelech’s coup, in which all the fruit trees refuse to cease producing fruit in order to become king over the other trees, leaving the bramble to “devour them with fire”.  This a lovely poetic way of expressing a truth, that just because one is good at one thing does not mean one should leave that to seek fame and glory as a leader.