Reading the Bible as Literature
Week Thirteen: Ruth 1 – 1 Samuel 20
Reading Ruth and 1 Samuel together is interesting because, in the first case, we have a book that is almost assuredly made-up some 700-years after the fact by post-exilic writers who were attempting to inject some sanity into the Israelites’ methods of rebuilding their culture and society; and in the second case, a return to an increasingly reliable history, at least in terms of the establishment of monarchy, the lineage of kings, and the tension between the priestly Yahvist sects (anti-monarchs) and the tribal order of kings. To be sure, certain elements of 1 Samuel are likely fiction, or strongly embellished histories, but the dichotomy between the pastoral idyll of Ruth and the history of Samuel is a fun trip to take.
Ruth: In the Hebrew bible, the Book of Ruth is found in a division called “The Writings,” which are treated as literature rather than history. In the Christian bible, however, Ruth is ordered with its chronology. The events take place during the time of Judges, so Ruth is placed right after the Book of Judges. It is likely kept apart from the preceding book because it acts as an important segue to the next four books of kings, and because it is meant to stick out to Christian readers. We learn that Ruth is the great-grandmother of the future King David, which means, of course, that she is also an ancestor to Jesus. It would be extremely important for this information to be highlighted by the early Christian priests, for their early Christian readers; so, even though the book is short, it earns its place as a segmented section. The story of Ruth is also probably made up. At the time it was written, about 700 years after the events and not too long after the return from exile, the Israelites were re-establishing their cultural and societal expectations. One of these was strict exclusion of intermarriage. Whoever wrote this book clearly objected to that policy and intended to demonstrate that not only was conversion to the faith possible, but potentially vital. Ruth, a Moabite woman, being written as the ancestor of David and Jesus, would be a powerful testament to the possibilities in conversion and inter-marriage, especially given how earlier parts of the bible treated Moabite women (as rather salacious seducers of Israelite men).
Samuel and Saul: God raises up Samuel as high priest and judge (a kind of king or ruler, as we learned in the last book) of the Israelites. He is born to Hannah, who had been barren until she promised god that if he would give her a son, she would devote him to god. Over the course of the early chapters of 1 Samuel, we learn that the Israelites and Philistines are still engaged in war, and that the Philistines far outmatched the Israelites in numbers and technology. They eventually manage to rout the Israelites and steal the Ark of the Covenant, in large part because the Israelites had again returned to polytheism and sinful living (adultery, lust, idolatry, etc.). This part of the bible also suggests that it is Samuel who manages to eventually defeat the Philistines permanently, but that cannot be accurate because, later, Saul and even David would still be at war with the Philistines (and they were the ones who would end Philistine rule forever); so, the priestly bias that has appeared in earlier books likely comes into play here, too, in the tension between the power of Samuel (priest and prophet) and Saul (the peoples’ king). Saul, indeed, is anointed king by Samuel, first, but is crowned a second time by the tribes. This dual crowning is likely another priestly invention that attempts to put two histories (one favoring priestly selection/anointing of rulers and the other favoring Benjaminite tribal tradition of selecting a king from among the people) into alignment.
Jonathan and David: I have always loved the story of Jonathan and David. Their “friendship,” as some call it, is rather unique in the bible, and in the old testament in particular. They are really soul mates, as is reiterated on multiple occasions in 1 Samuel: “And it came to pass, when he had made an end of speaking unto Saul, that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Sam 18). This love is spoken of again and again, and in their later parting, they weep and kiss each other. Some readers of certain persuasions have taken this to hint at a romantic relationship. A more accurate reading is probably a political one, where Saul’s heir-apparent to the throne, Jonathan, has allied himself with the handsome, accomplished, and charismatic general, David, with a view to the future. And perhaps it is both. It’s probably impossible to say for certain, either way, what the nature of their relationship was, but we can admit that it is rather special to them in biblical context.
OTHER INTERESTING BITS
Judah: At this point in time, Judah is a border territory under control of the Philistines. And yet, it suddenly makes a strong appearance in these two books, where it had been largely ignored to this point. Why? It’s interesting to compare it to Macedon, a border town in Greece that was largely under control of the Persians. At a certain point, Macedon was not only able to overthrow the Persians, but they took brief control over all of Greece. Judah, too, will do the same by overthrowing the Philistines and taking control of Israel. This is perhaps why writers began to insert certain levels of importance to this tribe, which had been, until then, rather plagued with misfortune (Bethlehem-judah has been mentioned a few times to this point, but always in rather dire circumstances).
Ark of the Covenant: The Israelites take the Ark of the Covenant into war, thinking it will save them because it is the physical embodiment of god’s power. But instead, they lose the battle and the Ark is stolen. This seems to suggest that god’s power is not meant to be wielded by the arms (or whims) of man. It’s also important to note that the Ephraimites, who had been carrying the Ark, never see it again. It will be tribe Judah that recovers it – no coincidence, given their other recent rises in fortune?
Which David Story?: There are two competing origin stories for David which are laid out basically side-by-side and without comment on the tension. The first is that David is selected by god (through Samuel) to be the next King of Israel. Samuel somehow manages to get David into King Saul’s favor, likely through an amenable/pro-Samuel courtier. David then becomes Saul’s harpist and arms-bearer. The other story is that David comes to Saul’s attention after slaying Goliath. David, the youngest in his family, was running supplies for his three elder brothers, who were in the army. When he sees Goliath stomping around, threatening everyone, and yet no one is willing to fight him, he takes the task upon himself. When he wins, Saul tries to find out who he is, which family he comes from, etc., and then he takes him into his court. Again, we seem to have one anti-monarch/pro-Yahvist perspective (Samuel, the prophet, selects the new king) and one pro-monarch perspective (Saul, the king, sees his own successor). 1 Chronicles 20:5 and 2 Samuel 21:19 both seem to suggest that what is really known about Goliath is that he was slain by some unnamed Bethlehemite. So, perhaps a later writer, wanting to elevate David even further and add an element of emotional romance to the story, conveniently reshapes the history into a useful fiction.