Sunday, May 30, 2021

June 6, 2021 - 2nd Sunday after Pentecost

                                    Biblical Words                                          [553]

I Samuel 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20, (11:14-15); Psalm 138; II Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35. 

God’s Reign outlasts human kings, the death of mortals, and plunders the house of the Strong Man.

This part of the Lectionary year. 

When we reach the Second Sunday after Pentecost, we begin the long stretch of “ordinary time” between the end of the Easter season and the coming of Advent in November – about half the year. 

The Revised Common Lectionary follows a custom of making this a period of “continuous reading,” reading major parts of scripture in sequence Sunday by Sunday.  Thus the Gospel readings of this period follow the sequence in the Gospel for each year, Matthew in year A, Mark in year B, and Luke in year C.  Similarly, the Epistle readings in Year B are little digests of II Corinthians, Ephesians, and Hebrews.

The readings from the Hebrew scriptures during this season are designed to sample the whole scriptures in three years, Genesis to Joshua in year A; the historical books, Samuel to Solomon, in year B; and the prophets from Elijah to Malachi in year C. 

Thus we now begin hearing the historical books of Samuel, Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, and the Gospel according to Mark.  

I Samuel 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20, (11:14-15). 

All of the books of Samuel and Kings are about kingship in Israel and Judah: 

·        how kingship itself emerged in Israel,

·        how the particular kingship of David and his dynasty was selected,

·        how the one kingdom split into two, and (at great length)

·        how those smaller kingdoms struggled until each was destroyed by great empires of the east – understood as God’s judgment on the unfaithful Israelite rulers and their realms. 

In the macro-vision spanning all scripture, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were an interruption in the kingship of Yahweh over Israel. 

If Israel had remained faithful after the death of Joshua (see Joshua 24) there would have been no need for kingship; Israel would have prospered and endured.  At the other end of the history, hundreds of years later, in the modest days of the Persian Empire, the little temple-state of Yehud (Judah) was ruled by high-priests faithful to Yahweh, and they needed no kings to complicate their favor from their Persian overlords.  The glory days of David, Solomon, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, and Josiah were only an interlude in the true reign of God, the Theocracy in which Yahweh alone was King. 

Our reading.  The selections from I Samuel present the first stage of that Theocratic viewpoint.  

The Israelites demand a king, “so that we also may be like other nations” (verse 20).  The Israelites are, of course, rejecting the leadership of Samuel in this request, and when Samuel consults Yahweh, Yahweh says, in effect, “Don’t take it to heart.  They have been rejecting me like this for generations, ever since I brought them out of Egypt” (verse 8). 

(On the various Biblical presentations of Samuel, see below, Special Note:   Samuel and the Theocracy.) 

However, this is the moment in history when Yahweh is going to let the Israelites go their own way:  Let them have their kingship, only be sure you tell them how oppressive it is going to be, so later they will know they brought this misery on themselves (the gist of verses 9 and 18). 

In these verses we are hearing only one side of the argument, of course.  Throughout Israelite history, till at least the time of Ezra, there seems to have been two views on kingship:  For it, and against it.  The “against” voice is heard in I Samuel 8 and some verses of 10 and 12; in later readings we will also hear the voice “for” kingship! 

Psalm 138. 

The psalm reading is unrestrained praise of Yahweh, whose reputation extends throughout the world (known to “the gods,” as well as to “all the kings of the earth,” verses 1 and 4). 

Even though the psalm heading says “of David,” given our reading above we may fancy that this psalm is Samuel’s speech, raising high his swan song with Yahweh: 

We (You, Yahweh, and I) have done well; when I called you answered (verse 3). 

We know these rebellious Israelites are in for a bad run, and we know the theocracy was a good thing for them.  For what has been, I greatly thank you, and celebrate your world-wide reputation – even if the unwise Israelites do not recognize what a good thing they have had! 

II Corinthians 4:13-5:1. 

The Epistle reading is about personal resurrection -- the greatest change in God’s rule over the faithful from the glory times of Israel to the faithful service of the Jesus followers.  (The Old Testament does not have belief in resurrection -- with one late exception in Daniel 12:2.) 

The reading starts out in the middle of some arguments, but soon moves to a very powerful focus:  we hear a couple of the strongest affirmations in the New Testament of the future resurrected life of the believer! 

"We know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence.... For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens."  (Verses 14 and 5:1, NRSV.) 

It is not often acknowledged in Christian writings, but this emphatic and very confident faith in the resurrection was the result of Paul’s rearing and faith as a Pharisee! 

The Pharisees were the first religious party to insist as a basic doctrine of faith that the faithful would be resurrected to a future life.  Paul, and eventually all other Jesus followers, accepted that doctrine as a basic presupposition of the religious life.  (See the words of Jesus in Luke 12:4-5, = Matthew 10:28.)  

It was, however, a new thing it the religious universe of the Judaism of the Roman period.  (The Sadducees, for example, did not believe in the resurrection.)  The belief in the resurrection was the gift of the Pharisees to all later Judaism and Christianity! 

All Christian Biblical scholars, who think the doctrine of the personal resurrection of the believer is an important matter, should read a chapter in Ellis Rivkin’s book, The Shaping of Jewish History (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971; reissued, with expansions, under the title,  The Unity Principle, by Behrman House, 2003).  The chapter to read is, “The Pharisaic Revolution:  A Decisive Mutation” (pp. 42-83 in Scribner’s ed., pp. 49-99 in Behrman ed.). 

Here is one critical quotation from that chapter: 

For this was the essence of the Pharisaic revolution:  God offered the individual, through the system of the twofold Law, eternal life in the world to come, and eventually bodily resurrection; this was the reward for loyalty to the twofold Law.  By this shift in sanctions the Pharisees transformed Judaism [from a priestly religion of temple and rituals] into a religion of personal, individual salvation.  (Page 53, Scribner’s ed.) 

Long before he met Jesus, Paul learned of the resurrection from his Pharisee teachers. 

Mark 3:20-35. 

The Gospel reading presents two moments when the Reign of God appears among people.  The people (even Jesus’ family) think Jesus, the bearer of God’s power, is either crazy or demon-possessed!  

This is a long passage with two main parts:  the framing narrative about Jesus’ family (verses 21, 31-35), and the confrontation with the Jerusalem scribes about the source of Jesus’ power over evil spirits (verses 22-30). 

Jesus’ family.  The passage says Jesus went “home” (verse 19b, NRSV).  This is probably Peter’s house in Capernaum rather than Nazareth.  Jesus’ only venture back to Nazareth was rather a failure, as Mark reports it (6:1-6).  He probably understands Jesus’ family to travel a day’s journey up to Jesus’ base of mission, only to be snubbed because of Jesus’ main priority, the will of God (verse 35). 

Being relatives of a Messiah could be a very trying experience! 

Beelzebul (Satan).  But the main message of the passage is about the new power Jesus brings.  Confronted with amazing healings and exorcisms of demonic powers, the authorities of Judaism up in Jerusalem have to come up with some PR to put down the new provincial faith healer.  They do not deny his power!  Instead, they ascribe it to the Evil One.  This new man is not from God; he is in cahoots with Satan!  

“Beelzebul” was already an old title.  An Elijah story going back seven hundred years before Jesus refers to “Ba‘al-zebub,” Lord of the Flies (II Kings 1:2).  That version of the name was a deliberate Israelite distortion of the title “Ba‘al-zebul,” Lord of the Boundary (Realm), an honorable name of a god of healing in the Philistine city of Ekron. 

It may be noted that Mark says Jesus replied to these accusers “in parables” (verse 23).  Jesus says, in effect, If you are going to use the language of mythology to talk about my power and the demonic world, I will also use figurative language to answer you. 

Jesus’ reply is probably more famous because Abraham Lincoln quoted it than because it is scripture:  “If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.  And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come” (verses 25-26, NRSV). 

The point is that Satan’s “house” has been assaulted.  “No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered” (verse 27).  An escape of prisoners from the house of the Evil One has begun, and a procession of escapees is following Jesus in great joy and thankfulness (see verse 20) – even if his family does think he is crazy! 

People may say they are waiting for God’s reign instead of for human rulers, but do they really know what to expect? 

 

Special Note:  Samuel and the Theocracy

Those who wish to read the scriptures as consistent and harmonious in their several parts have a special challenge with Samuel.  He simply acts differently and reflects quite different viewpoints in different parts of I Samuel.  He does not hang together as a consistent historical agent, much less as a comprehensible personality. 

There are in fact about five Samuels, each with his own strand of traditional material in the book of First Samuel. 

First there is Samuel the “seer” or “man of god” who is locally famous for giving divine guidance on human problems, such as finding lost donkeys (I Samuel 9:5-10:7).  The reciter of this strand of tradition carefully explains, “for the one who is now called a prophet was formerly called a seer” (I Samuel 9:9).  This Samuel can be directed by God to anoint future kings, though always secretly (I Samuel 10:1 and 16:1-13), and he may be associated with guilds of “prophets” noted for their ecstatic outbursts (besides I Samuel 10:5-6, see especially 19:18-24). 

The Second Samuel is the priest, trained at the prominent sanctuary of Shiloh in the tribal territory of Ephraim.  This is the Samuel of Hannah’s vow, which makes Samuel part of the resident staff under the head priest Eli (I Samuel 1-2).  His priestly role is also emphasized later at Mizpah (Benjamin territory), though his cultic actions there are mingled with his figure as a “judge” (I Samuel 7:7-9). 

Third is Samuel the prophet.  In one sense the Seer is a prophet (as the first reciter told us), but in I Samuel 3 we get Samuel as a prophet distinguished from others and given a special message from Yahweh.  (Like most prophetic “calls” in Israelite tradition, this “call narrative” is in fact a divine sanction of a particular message, not simply of special powers for the prophet.)  The message Samuel was impelled to deliver from the night-speaking God was that the “house” of Eli the priest was doomed (I Samuel 3:10-14). 

While the Prophetic Samuel starts at Shiloh in continuity with the old priesthood, the mature prophet Samuel is associated with Ramah and a circuit of towns related to it, all of which are in the territory of Benjamin (I Samuel 7:15-17).  This prophetic Samuel is on his way to being the king-maker of the rest of I Samuel, though the Deuteronomistic traditionists (collectors of the traditions in Joshua to II Kings) undoubtedly built upon an older prophetic image of Samuel. 

The Fourth Samuel is the construction of the Deuteronomistic traditionists.  This is the figure of the king-maker who was guided by Yahweh in detail in conceding that Israel could have kings and in sanctioning the new kings by anointing them, as well as in dooming the disobedient Saul and his dynasty (I Samuel 8, 10:17-25; 12, and 15). 

This is Samuel the agent of the Theocracy. 

Probably related to this king-maker Samuel, and definitely a Deuteronomistic construction, is the Fifth Samuel, the “judge” as presented in I Samuel 7.  That chapter presents Samuel as a perfect (and final) “judge” in line with the Deuteronomistic theory of judges (Judges 2:11-23). 

This Samuel delivers the Israelites from the Philistines (by doing the liturgy, not by leading in battle) and they have perfect peace for twenty years.  (There may have been older views of Samuel as an actual judge for the local people, with a judicial circuit and sons expected to succeed him, I Samuel 7:16-8:3.  This, however, was no more than a hook for the fully blown “judge” of the finished chapter 7.) 

This is the final exaltation of the Theocracy – of rule by God instead of by humans.  On this view, all that Israel needs is the right man as “judge” on Yahweh’s side (such as the high priest in the time of the Persian empire).  Given this, any request to have “a king like all the nations” can only be perverse and wicked disloyalty to God! 

 

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