Lectionary Reflection for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

This excerpt comes from 1 Samuel (BTCB) by Francesca Aran Murphy, commenting on 1 Samuel 17: (1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49:

None of the scenes of single-handed combat in Homer’s epic of war or in Vergil’s Roman successor has achieved the mythic universality of this historical, biblical tale. One reason is that it is much simpler and more naïve. Both Achilles’ fight with Hector in the Iliad and Aeneas’s climactic defeat of Turnus in the Aeneid are psychologically and artistically complex. Achilles and Hector, kings of the Greeks and the Trojans, and “Trojan” Aeneas and Turnus king of the indigenous Sabines, are evenly matched in their social status and military prowess. The deaths of Hector and Turnus both have tragic overtones. They participate in the grandeur of the epic milieu from which they spring. No Greek or Roman epic poet would dream of matching a shepherd against a giant. As against the tragic endings of the Homeric and Vergilian epics of war, the slaying of the hulking Goliath by the youthful shepherd is a straightforward happy dénouement.

At the same time, all is not quite what it seems, and we know that. It is not the uneven conquest of a Philistine champion by an anonymous boy that it looks like on the surface. Few are taken in. It is not about a habiru, a socially marginal migrant, taking on a terrifying tyrant, and anyone who has read the preceding chapters of 1 Samuel knows that. In this story, a secretly anointed king throws down the gauntlet to a representative member of the most God-mocked tribe in sacred scripture.

…You don’t have to know God’s injunction to Samuel, “Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (16:7 ESV), to intuit that this is what the story is about. It is the secret of its universal, mythic appeal, because everyone knows that appearances are deceptive and because everyone likes it that way. Or, they’d like to like it that way.

The truth that Plato wrote a philosophy to expound is told in 1 Sam. 17 as an adventure story. But Platonists are not all that sure that the deceptiveness of appearance is amiable. It is a conundrum for them, and a tragedy: Socrates was a martyr to truth over the common opinions of the Athenian jurors, their susceptibility to false appearances. Whereas, for the Bible, the deceptiveness of appearance is weighted to winning: it launches the heart to triumph over the appearance. It is because we yearn to believe that “strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9) that the inspired authority of scripture is humanly gripping. That weakness is deceptive is what launches the underdog to victory. This is why David is a great comic hero, and the biblical vision is ultimately a comedy.

©2010 by Francesca Aran Murphy. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Third Sunday after Pentecost

This excerpt comes from 1 Samuel (BTCB) by Francesca Aran Murphy, commenting on 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13:

On God’s instruction, Samuel anoints David, and his name is then shared out too: “Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and the Spirit of the Lord came upon David from that day forward” (16:13 NKJV). No ugly duckling, David is the jolt to the system that the all-knowing God had selected. The Psalms speak of the striking innovation of this election, which overturns the traditional familial hierarchy known to all tribal cultures:

I made a lad ruler in preference to a warrior, I exalted a youth above a hero.

I found David my servant, with my holy oil I anointed him. (Ps. 89:19– 20, trans. Flanagan 1988: 201)

A transition is occurring within Israel’s religious self-understanding, bound up with its cultural self-understanding and with the self-understanding of all peoples after Christ.

To modern Western readers, instructed by countless fairy tales, bypassing of the elder sons for the youngest is about as surprising as the appearance of an unlikely hero in a Disney movie. Our culture has been steeped in the Christ event for so long that it takes an imaginative effort to see that, because Samuel’s culture was one in which “the elders were an important component of the social stratum” and the “gods of the progenitors,” their own “ancestors influenced the Israelites to structure themselves hierarchically according to age. To be a gibbor (‘firstborn’) accorded a son special status, not because the firstborn was stronger, wiser, or more experienced, but because he was the closest one in line to the ancestors.”

What we, no less than the “African and Israelite communities . . . organized along family hierarchical structures,” have to learn from the upheaval and transformation represented by the anointing of the youngest son is that Christ, and like him his forefather David, creates a change in the register of God’s action. In the world of the patriarchs and the tribal cultures of the judges, where God acted in the seen (the naturally beautiful), the order and beauty of the family and tribe, henceforth God will often act in the unseen (the invisible and yet providential gesture). There are no miracles in 1 Sam. 16–31. God’s working has gone underground, and hence a signature theme must be the contrast of the heart and the externals that mortal family members can see.

©2010 by Francesca Aran Murphy. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany

This excerpt comes from 1 Samuel (BTCB) by Francesca Aran Murphy, commenting on 1 Samuel 3:1-10:

The twilight scene in which the call story begins could grace a pre-Raphaelite painting: the lights slowly fading from temple and its environs. First we are shown Eli laying up for the night, sleep gathering in his rheumy eyes: “Eli was laid down in his place, and his eyes began to wax dim, that he could not see” (3:2).

The temple is shutting down for the night, and “the lamp of God” is about to be put out “in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was, and Samuel was laid down to sleep” (3:3). “The temple of the Lord” makes us think of Solomon’s Temple, as yet unbuilt, of course, not of a backwoods temple-shrine in Shiloh.

The empirically minded fifth-century Antiochene theologian Theodore of Mopsuestia rightly asks why the psalmist can refer to what is really a tabernacle as a temple and answers that “the tabernacle may be called the temple, the testimony of Kings [i.e., Regum] clearly instructs, since the construction of the temple had not begun at the time”: the Shiloh shrine is temple because the ark of the covenant there domiciled in its tabernacle (Exposition on Psalms 10, in Franke 2005: 210).

Living in the house of the Lord was evidently taken literally: because it characterizes their sleep positions by reference to the temple lamps, we can see that Eli is sleeping in an antechamber to the temple, and Samuel perhaps before the ark. The pre-Raphaelites would enjoy illustrating this because it is lucidly allegorical, representing by the state of visionless sleep that the people are not awake to the presence of God, that “the word of the Lord was precious [or sparse]; there was no open vision” (3:1).

The divine call comes when, at a real and spiritual moment of twilight, “the word of the Lord” is sparse and the light of “open vision” has almost been quenched in the land. The priest himself, the obvious recipient of the call, has become spiritually sluggish (Eli’s “eyes began to wax dim, that he could not see”; 3:2).

The temple light is about to be dimmed: “And ere the lamp of God went out in the temple of the Lord” (3:3); then, as the unwitting prophet-to-be is “laid down to sleep” (3:4), God’s word strikes. God’s word is so much an unknown word, a new sign, that neither the boy nor the priest his “father” spontaneously recognize it.

 

©2010 by Francesca Aran Murphy. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

From 1 Samuel (BTCB) by Francesca Aran Murphy, commenting on 1 Samuel 16:1-13:

Samuel is not called to see for himself what to do next or whom to anoint. God tells him, “I will show you what you shall do; you shall anoint for Me the one I name to you” (16:3 NKJV).

Jesse’s eldest sons gather round the sacrifice. When  Samuel “looked at Eliab” he says to himself, “Surely the Lord’s anointed” right there! (16:6 NKJV). The episode gently mocks Samuel’s “blindness” by contrasting his human way of looking with God’s insight.

Eliab must be a big husky guy, for God tells Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him” (16:7 NKJV).

Whereas in patristic and medieval times, Christians sometimes drank too deeply of philosophies that exaggerated the separation between body and spirit, today, they are as likely to be influenced by antidualist ideologies. We are even told that differentiating the internal and the external is just Platonism or Cartesian dualism and has nothing to do with Christianity.

But this text clearly and simply distinguishes the external, physical look of persons from their interior self, characterized as their heart. It contrasts the blindness of Samuel, who is impressed by what’s on show—the visible height and stature of Eliab—with the insight of God, who sees the truth of a human being.

God tells Samuel, “The Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (16:7 NKJV). This, as we saw in the previous episode, was Augustine’s explanation of the discrepancy between God’s treatment of Saul and David.

The human heart evades literal analysis. It is a wayward thing that humans can know only partially, by contemplation, and that only God can see in full. The heart symbolizes what is personal to the human agent, because it is the concealed force directing all human action.

Two more sons, Abinadab and Shammah, are lined up for viewing and passed over. After seven sons have been displayed, Samuel asks if there are any more in the offing. There is, Jesse says, “the youngest,” out “keeping the sheep,” too junior to be recalled from work and invited to the sacrifice.

This naïve pantomime parade, a childish story of the passing over of the outstanding eldest for the insignificant youth, is put on to show that God is making a break with the natural run of things and starting over, as only God can start over, from the spirit or inside out. The contrast between external spectacle and invisible interior worth is telling us that the authentic measure of sight is God’s way of seeing.

God can see someone that everyone else has forgotten or doesn’t know about: and when they brought the youngest in, “he was ruddy, and withal of a beautiful countenance, and goodly to look to” (16:12). Up the sleeve of the divine providence was a boy who even looks better than his elder brothers. Maybe Samuel was cheered up by this divine joke against himself.

 

©2010 by Francesca Aran Murphy. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost

From 1 Samuel (BTCB) by Francesca Aran Murphy, commenting on 1 Samuel 1:4-20:

The book begins with a childless woman in a tribal society, in which contempt is heaped on women who do not deliver population growth. The first role that it addresses is motherhood. In Israel’s polygamous society, Hannah is one of Elkanah’s two wives, the barren one. Because nature has not taken its course in her marriage to Elkanah, Hannah asks God for a son.

Antiochene theologian Saint John Chrysostom contrasts her tiny request with more worldly demands: politically ambitious men who are “suing and grasping for a kingdom” should be “ashamed” to remember Hannah, “praying and weeping for a little child” (Homilies on Ephesians 24, in Franke 2005: 196).

Literary critics of the Hebrew Bible have taught us to see the barren woman’s request for fertility as a “type scene,” a model story that is repeated across scripture, so that when we meet a barren woman, we can expect that pretty soon she will be mother to a hero-child (Alter 1981: 51). Ancient Christian commentators found theological types in scripture.

Here the type of the barren-woman-turned-mother represents theological truth that God assigns spiritual gifts. Hannah’s pregnancy is not strictly miraculous, since she is not evidently incapable of childbearing, not too old like Sarah, for instance. Hannah’s fertility is not miraculous but providential, the hand of God working unseen within nature and history.

For Chrysostom, the moral of the story is patience and providence. “Let us not take this” story “with a grain of salt,” he says, but “even” when some “disaster” seems “insupportable to us, let us . . . wait on God’s providence” (2003: 74-75). This typical episode sets the history that 1 Samuel recounts rolling because the book is about God’s providential dealing out of roles.

 

©2010 by Francesca Aran Murphy. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

From 1 Samuel (BTCB) by Francesca Aran Murphy, commenting on 1 Samuel 17:(1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49:

Of course the story is about Christ vanquishing Satan. Caesarius of Arles recognizes that the new thing Christ did, the leap into a new state of affairs achieved in Christ’s conquest of Satan, lies behind this story. David’s unprecedented courage is a shadow of an event yet to come.

“Why,” asks Caesarius, did the Israelites “not dare to” fight “against their adversaries”? “Because David who typified Christ had not yet arrived. . . . Who was able to fight against the devil before Christ our Lord freed the human race from his power? Now the word David is interpreted as strong in hand; and what is stronger, brothers, than he who conquered the whole world, armed with a cross but not a sword” (Sermon 121.5, in Franke 2005: 268-69).

The duel between David and Goliath . . . is not just reinterpreted by Christians to mean Christ’s defeat of death. The combat between an apparently weaker hero and his overweening opponent becomes something new, because of Christ’s conquest of the evil won.

Caesarius’s love of the doctrine of Christ’s descent into hell is reputed to have led to the insertion of the line descendit ad inferos into the Apostles’ Creed. This victory, no less historical and no less a triumph of apparent weakness over apparent dominion than David’s defeat of Goliath, was, Caesarius says, “prefigured in David” but “accomplished by our Lord Jesus Christ; for he strangled the lion and the bear when he descended into hell to free all the saints from their jaws” (Sermon 121.4, in Franke 2005: 271).

 

©2010 by Francesca Aran Murphy. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Third Sunday after Pentecost

From 1 Samuel (BTCB) by Francesca Aran Murphy, commenting on 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13:

God tells Samuel, “The Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (16:7 NKJV). . . . The human heart evades literal analysis. It is a wayward thing that humans can know only partially, by contemplation, and that only God can see in full. The heart symbolizes what is personal to the human agent, because it is the concealed force directing all human action.

Two more sons, Abinadab and Shammah, are lined up for viewing and passed over. After seven sons have been displayed, Samuel asks if there are any more in the offing. There is, Jesse says, “the youngest,” out “keeping the sheep,” too junior to be recalled from work and invited to the sacrifice.

This naïve pantomime parade, a childish story of the passing over of the outstanding eldest for the insignificant youth, is put on to show that God is making a break with the natural run of things and starting over, as only God can start over, from the spirit or inside out. The contrast between external spectacle and invisible interior worth is telling us that the authentic measure of sight is God’s way of seeing.

God can see someone that everyone else has forgotten or doesn’t know about: and when they brought the youngest in, “he was ruddy, and withal of a beautiful countenance, and goodly to look to” (16:12). Up the sleeve of the divine providence was a boy who even looks better than his elder brothers. Maybe Samuel was cheered up by this divine joke against himself.

©2010 by Francesca Aran Murphy. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.