December 09, 2008

Breadcrumb: A few surprises

Two rather surprising facts from our most recent reading. First, if you want to humiliate someone, Old Testament style, what you need to do is shave off half their beards and cut their clothes at the buttocks. I mean, who wouldn't be humiliated by something like that? (2 Sam. 10:4)

Second, if you thought your hat was heavy, consider the plight of the ex-king of Rabbah, whose crown weighed a talent of gold. That's about 75 pounds. Yes, a 75-pound gold crown, that David took for himself. You have to wondering whether Rabbah's king, or David for that matter, ever actually wore the thing, or whether they just kept it as decoration. On today's royal exercise regimen: neck extensions! (2 Sam. 12:30)

December 08, 2008

Breadcrumb: Like my own son

We might remember from 1 Samuel that David's best friend was Jonathan, Saul's son. Jonathan died at the end of 1 Samuel, but he left behind a crippled son named Mephibosheth. In 2 Samuel 9, David finds out about Mephibosheth and wants to show him kindness for the sake of his father, David's best friend. Mephibosheth is understandably worried, knowing that his grandfather Saul was David's enemy. But David sets Mephibosheth up with Saul's lands, Saul's servants, and a place at David's own table amongst his own sons. For the rest of his life, Mephibosheth is well taken care of. It just goes to show that you never can tell with David.

December 07, 2008

2 Sam 8-12: Ancient Israel -- The Soap Opera

(Today's passage covers David's many conquests; his kindness towards Mephibosheth, Jonathan's son; his defeat of the Ammonites and Syrians; his affair with Bethsheba, and the aftermath thereof.)

In today's passage, we see the odd reasoning of David's mind. It seems he acts first and rationalizes later, trying to do what's right, but when that fails, doing what's necessary.

Perhaps an example is in order.

In 2 Samuel 11, David is staying at home in Jerusalem while his general Joab besieges Rabbah. While he's walking along a rooftop, he sees a beautiful woman, Bethsheba, bathing herself. David is smitten and has her sent over. He sleeps with her and she conceives a son. (2 Sam. 11:1-5)

Now, David doesn't want any trouble. So he has Bethsheba's husband Uriah sent back from the fronts on the pretence of getting an update about the war. David sends Uriah home, assuming he'll sleep with Bethsheba and thus will be able to claim that the child is his own, letting David get off home free. (2 Sam. 11:6-8)

But Uriah doesn't go home. Instead, he sleeps on the porch of the palace with David's servants. David is dismayed and asks Uriah why he didn't go home. Uriah answers (and I paraphrase), "The ark sleeps in a tent. Israel and Judah sleep in tents. My lord Joab, fighting at Rabbah, sleeps in a tent. How can I, in good conscience, sleep in my house?" (2 Sam. 11:11)

David gives Uriah two more days, but each day Uriah sleeps with the servants and not in his own house.

Now, David had done all he could to fix his mistake, but Uriah refused to take the bait. If Uriah couldn't claim the child as his own, there was only one thing to do, David reasoned, which was to have Uriah killed so that he could rightfully claim the child himself. So David sent a letter, delivered by Uriah himself, to General Joab, telling him to place Uriah at the very front of the troops. Joab does, and Uriah is killed in a hail of arrows. (2 Sam. 11:12-17)

Joab sends back a messenger, who tells David everything that happened. Joab thinks that David will be upset, but that's only because he doesn't know the back-story. David tells Joab not to worry and to press his attack. Meanwhile, he, David, waits until Bethsheba is finished mourning and promptly marries her. (2 Sam. 18-27)

But all is not well. Even though David thinks he was being remarkably sneaky about the whole affair, God knows everything, and God is not happy. God sends Nathan, his prophet, to chide David with a parable about two men, one rich and one poor. When a traveller arrives from far away, the rich man chooses to slaughter the poor man's only ewe instead of taking one of the many sheep from his own fields. (2 Sam. 12:1-4)

David is outraged at the rich man, until Nathan tells him, "The rich man is you." David sees the error of his ways, and God lessens the punishment from "you will die" to "the child will die." (2 Sam. 12:5-14)

Indeed, the child falls ill, and David does everything in his power to intercede. He fasts. He sleeps on the ground. He prays. But after seven days, the child dies anyway.

The servants are afraid to tell David, thinking (quite understandably) that if David mourned so much for the child while it was still alive, he would be completely inconsolable now that the child was dead. Instead, David hears the news, gets dressed, and sits down to a meal. (2 Sam. 12:15-20)

The servants are confused. "Why," they ask him, "are you eating, now that the child is dead, when you were fasting while it was alive?" (2 Sam. 12:21)

And here, I think, we see the true genius of David. He replies, (and again I paraphrase) "When the child was alive, there was still a chance God would show mercy to me and allow him to leave. Now that he's dead, I can't bring him back, so what's the point in fasting?" (2 Sam. 12:22-23) Here we see David thinking clearly, logically, and ruthlessly. He's done all he could, but the past is past. Once there's nothing to do, there's no point in bemoaning the past. It is time to move on.

And move on David does, sleeping with Bethsheba again, who conceives Solomon. He also deals the finishing blow to Rabbah, just for good measure and to tie the whole story together. (2 Sam. 12:24-31)

December 06, 2008

Breadcrumb: A case of mistaken identity

In 2 Samuel 7, David is feeling guilty: he has a beautiful cedar palace, and the ark (God's house) is housed in a tent. He asks Nathan, God's prophet, whether he should build a house for God. In a dream, God replies to Natahan that David should do no such thing. Instead, he promises to establish David's "seed" and "establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son." (2 Sam. 7:13-14) What we have here is a case of mistaken identity. Jews claim the passage refers to Solomon, David's son, whereas Christians take this as a reference for Christ, David's descendant. The parallel continues through to verse 16, in which God says he will "chasten him with the rod of men," but that "my mercy shall not depart away from him." So who's right, the Christians or the Jews? It depends on who you ask.

December 05, 2008

Breadcrumb: Never murder a king

In 2 Samuel 4, for the second time in as many readings, we encounter a case of regicide. Two of Ishbosheth's captains, Rechab and Baanah, see which way the wind is blowing and decide to take matters into their own hands. They go into Ishbosheth's house during the king's midday nap on the pretence of fetching wheat, and then they stab the king through the belly. The decapitate the corpse and bring the severed head to David, thinking that they'll get what's coming to them for killing his biggest rival. And they do get what's coming to them, though not in the way they thought, because David has them both killed for regicide. And here we see how well David plays his cards: he's making it absolutely, unequivocally clear that you don't kill kings, even if they happen to be your enemies. We can only assume that the message stuck when he himself was king, because he reigned for a full 33 years before he died.

December 04, 2008

2 Sam 4-7: Settling in

(Today's passage covers Ishbosheth's murder, David's conquest of Jerusalem and some Philistine armies, the return of the Ark to Jerusalem, and God's promise to David that he'll establish his line forever.)

As 2 Samuel 5 opens, David is the undisputed king over all Israel. All the tribes have pledged their allegiance to him, and all that remains is for him to set himself up in proper kingly style. He is, I should mention, 37 years old, and will reign until he's 70, which isn't a bad run in the "king" trade. (2 Sam. 5:4-5)

The first order of business is to find himself a capital. David choses the city of Jerusalem, which until now hasn't been a particularly important city, all things considered. Despite the overconfident boasting of the inhabitants that David can be held off by "the blind and the lame," David conquers the city and names it after himself. (2 Sam. 5:6-10)

Now there's the issue of having a proper kingly residence, which is provided -- surprisingly enough -- by Hiram, king of Tyre. Hiram not only sends David cedar trees, but also carpenters and masons to build a palace (NIV; "house" in the KJV) suitable for him. (2 Sam. 5:11-12) Meanwhile, David settles down with more wives, more concubines, and produces yet more children. Eleven of the sons are named, so David's got at least a dozen new children who will, we presume, all be vying for the throne eventually. (2 Sam. 5:13-16)

So David's got a city, he's got a palace, and he's got heirs. The only thing that's missing is the ark, which is still at Abinadab's house, where it was left in 1 Sam. 7. David gathers up 30,000 men to go return the ark to the City of David (aka Jerusalem). They play music. They dance. But then something happens: as the ark is jostled, Uzzah, Abinadab's son, reaches out a hand to steady it. This, as we've learned from previous books, is a Really Bad Idea. God hates it when people touch his ark, so he kills Uzzah right on the spot. (2 Sam. 6:6-7)

David is so frightened by the whole experience that he leaves the ark at the house of Obed-Edom, a Gittite. It isn't until he sees how much God blesses Obed-Edom that David decides to finally bring the ark into Jerusalem, three months later. Again the dancing, again the music-making. In a wonderful turn of phrase, "David danced before the LORD with all his might." (2 Sam. 6:14, KJV) The ark is returned with great spectacle, sacrifices, and blessings.

But all is not well. Michal, David's first wife, recently returned to him at his specific request, doesn't like all this merry-making going on with the servant girls. She complains that David "uncovered himself" (KJV) before the servants. David dismisses this out of hand, and then presumably never sleeps with her again, because she dies childless. (2 Sam. 6:16-23)

And so, with the exception of Michal and the Philistine leaders, everyone is happy. The ark is back, Jerusalem is conquered, and David is the undisputed king over all Israel. Long live the king!

December 03, 2008

Breadcrumb: How many women does one man need?

In 2 Samuel 3:1-5, we find out that after settling in Hebron, David had six sons by six different women. The first two were by his two wives, Ahinoam and Abigail, but we don't know whether David was married to the other four. Regardless, when Abner decides to defect to David's side (see the latest essay), one of David's conditions is that Abner bring him Michal, Saul's daughter and David's first wife. Granted, Michal and David had once loved each other. But back in 1 Sam. 25, we found out that Saul had given Michal to Paltiel instead, because David was in Saul's bad books. But a deal's a deal, so Abner summons Abigail, sends Paltiel home, and brings her along. (2 Sam. 3:13-16) And we'll read about the outcome of that tomorrow. Hint: it doesn't end well.

December 02, 2008

Breadcrumb: I killed the king!

At the very beginning of 2 Samuel (1:1-16) that we read a second account of Saul's death, this time as it was told to David. We read in 1 Sam. 31 that Saul had been wounded by arrows, asked his armour-bearer to finish him off, and when the latter refused, Saul fell on his own sword. Now we read that, in fact, it was an Amalekite who killed Saul when he was fatally wounded. How do we know? Because the very same man took Saul's crown and bracelet to present them to David and tell his story. And what, we might ask, did this noble soul receive for his efforts in putting Saul out of his misery? David had him killed. Just goes to show that you should never murder the king, even if he asks you to.

December 01, 2008

2 Sam 1-3: He who lives by deceit...

(Today's passage covers David's anointment over Judah, the civil war between the houses of David and Saul, especially as played out through their generals Abner and Joab.)

Welcome back to Daily Breadcrumbs. I know it's been a while, but we're now ready to pick up where we left off, with Saul dead and David poised to inherit the kingdom. After all, Samuel had anointed him way back in 1 Samuel 16, so it he should have been a shoe-in.

Of course, things are never that simple.

It turns out that Saul had an as-yet-unmentioned son named Ishbosheth, who was about 40 years old at the time of the king's death. So while David gets himself crowned king of Judah, Ishbosheth sets himself up as king over the rest of Israel with Abner as his general. We might remember Abner from 1 Samuel, where he served Saul. (2 Sam. 2:1-11)

Abner goes out with some of his men to negotiate with Joab (one of David's generals), his brothers, and his men. Abner suggests a "friendly" wrestling match between a dozen men of each side, whereupon his dozen stick daggers into the sides of Joab's dozen, thus sparking off a civil war. (2 Sam. 2:12-16)

In the course of the first battle, Joab's brother Asahel pursues Abner, who gently and then not-so-gently tries to dissuade him. When nothing else works, Abner resorts to sticking the butt end of his spear into Asahel's stomach so hard it comes out the other side of his body. (2 Sam. 2:18-23) Joab and his other brother Abishai pursue Abner to Ammah, where the latter joins forces with the Benjaminites, calls for a truce, and surprisingly gets it. Both men go home to their respective kings and there matters lie, at least for a time. (2 Sam. 2:24-32)

But then Ishbosheth does something foolish indeed: he accuses Abner of sleeping with Saul's concubine. Abner goes into a rage. He has been a loyal, devoted member of the Saul family faction; how dare Ishbosheth accuse him? In fact, he's so livid that he decides to be a loyal follower no longer and defects to David's side, bringing with him the elders of Israel, the Benjaminites, and pretty much everyone else who used to be loyal to Ishbosheth. David gladly takes on the highly experienced general, throws a feast, and lets Abner leave in peace. (2 Sam. 3:6-21)

On the surface, it looks like everything's going well for Abner, but that's because we've forgotten about Joab. Joab returns to Hebron, which David has made his interim capital, to find out that Abner had been there and departed. Quickly and secretly, he sends out men to bring Abner back, takes him aside for a private parley, and runs his sword through Abner's stomach, avenging Asahel's death. (2 Sam. 3:22-27)

Now it's David's turn to be livid. He lays all the blame for the murder on Joab and his family, mourns Abner's death, and fasts all day. The people take this as a good sign, that David had nothing to do with Abner's murder, and all become loyal David followers. (2 Sam. 3:28-39) Frankly, it's pretty easy to see why David was upset: Abner wasn't only a great general but a great negotiator, able to use cunning and force whenever either was required to get the job done. He might not have been the most loveable character so far, but he certainly had what it took to play politics at the highest level.

June 10, 2008

Daily Breadcrumbs on semi-permanent hiatus

Hello, all my faithful readers. I know it's been longer than the two weeks I promised in my last post. In fact, I seem to have lost my motivation for Daily Breadcrumbs. I will continue to do my private readers, and I will occasionally update Daily Breadcrumbs if something particularly relevant strikes me. For the time being, though, I'm putting Daily Breadcrumbs on semi-permanent hiatus. Thank you all for your support and your comments.

In the future, I may reincarnate Daily Breadcrumbs into a new blog, featuring Daily Breadcrumbs-type posts alongside more general thoughts on religion and culture. I will, of course, be sure to update you if this happens.

Until then, happy readings.

-- Julie, the girl behind the Breadcrumbs

April 30, 2008


First, a big thank you to all my readers. I appreciate the time you're devoting to reading along with me.

However, my life has gotten quite hectic lately. I started a new job this week, and I'm trying to get myself used to the new schedule. Because of this, Daily Breadcrumbs is going on hiatus for a few weeks (or maybe longer) while I adjust. I hope to be back soon so we can delve into 2 Samuel and the world of King David and King Solomon.

-- Julie, the girl behind the Breadcrumbs

April 29, 2008

Breadcrumb: Don't piss off the heir-apparent

When David and his men go back to Ziklag, the town granted to them by King Achish, they find that Amalekites have burned the buildings and run off with their wives. This cannot be tolerated. David takes 400 of his men in pursuit (200 were so weary they couldn't go with the main force). Thanks to a chance encounter with an Egyptian ex-slave of the Amalekites, David gets led straight to the revelling Amalek camp and slaughters them for a full 24 hours. He kills them all except for 400 camel-riders who flee, but it's enough to rescue all the spoils, the women, and the children. In the end, all the men get their loot back, and David even sends spoils to the elders of Judah because he wants to be in their good books. This is just as well, because Saul dies in the next chapter, leaving David the new king of Israel.

April 28, 2008

Breadcrumb: We don't want his type round here

In 1 Sam. 29, the Philistines are gearing up for a massive offensive against the Israelites. In their ranks are David and his men, loyal followers (theoretically) of King Achish. However, the Philistine princes are getting a bit anxious. Isn't David an Israelite? Isn't he the very one from the songs that say, "David slew his 10,000s?" Is it really wise to keep him here? they ask. What if he turns traitor on us in the midst of the battle? So, even though Achish is perfectly willing to have David by his side -- he has been perfectly loyal until now -- he finally gives in to the will of his princes and sends David and his men back home. Because of this, we'll never know whether David really would have proved the princes right or not. Instead, he goes on to slaughter a bunch of Amalekites, which we'll talk about tomorrow.

April 27, 2008

1 Sam 28-31: So long, Saul

(Today's passage covers Saul consultation with a witch, David's destruction of some Amalekites, and Saul's death.)

In these final chapters of 1 Sam., Saul finally loses it, both metaphorically and literally. First, he loses contact with God. We've known for some time that God has abandoned Saul in favour of David, but Saul finally acknowledges this in 1 Sam. 28. He acknowledges it, but he doesn't have to like it.

In fact, he dislikes it so much that he breaks his own law and consults a witch. According to his own edict, any medium or spirit-summoner faced the death penalty. So when Saul and two of his servants, disguised, show up by night at a woman's door and ask her to summon a spirit, she understandably refuses. She thinks that he's just leading her on so that he can bring her before Saul and see her executed. (1 Sam. 28:5-9)

Saul swears that she won't be hurt, and she finally relents. However, his disguise is for naught; when he asks to commune with Samuel's spirit, the woman immediately realizes he is Saul in disguise. Nonetheless, she summons Samuel's spirit for the king. (1 Sam. 28:10-12)

What does Samuel (or rather, his spirit) think about all this? He's annoyed! To paraphrase, he says, "God isn't speaking to you anymore. What do you expect me to do? The kingdom will pass to David, and by tomorrow you and your sons will be dead and Israel will be given over to the Philistines." Then Samuel gives up the ghost for good, leaving Saul with nothing but a feeling of impending doom. (1 Sam. 28:13-19)

The next day happens to take place in 1 Sam. 31. The huge Philistine army (less David and his men, who were sent back to Ziklag -- see tomorrow's Breadcrumb) lies on one side of the field, Saul's on the other. In short order, things turn out exactly as Samuel foresaw: the Philistines rout the Israelites and kill many of them, including Saul's sons, Jonathan, Abinadab, and Melchishua. Yes, the poster-child of the book, David's best friend and closest acquaintance, Jonathan dies in 1 Sam. 31:2.

Saul himself is wounded by an arrow, and begs his armour-bearer to run him through before the Philistines get to him. The armour-bearer, stricken with fear, refuses, so Saul falls on his sword and dies. The armour-bearer, perhaps from shame and perhaps from fear, falls on his sword and dies, too.

Now there's just a bit of mopping up to do. The Philistines behead and strip Saul's corpse and send it on display through the Philistine lands. They stick it, along with the bodies of his sons, on the wall of Bethshan. However, the valiant men of Jabesh Gilead, where Saul made his first and only really heroic stand (1 Sam. 11), rescue the bodies, burn them, and bury the bones before the Philistines can react.

Thus ends Saul's story. 2 Sam features more about David and his lineage, since Saul's line has died out, just like God promised. In the end, Saul seems to have become ever more paranoid and crazy as his reign wore on, and perhaps it's for the best that the kingdom is passed to someone else.

April 26, 2008

Breadcrumb: Where'd my wife go?

At the end of 1 Sam. 25, we find out that David has taken two new wives: Abigail (wife of the now-deceased Nabal), and Ahinoam of Jezreel. But what about David's first wife, Michal? We might recall that David married Michal, Saul's younger daughter, in 1 Sam. 18. But now it seems that Saul has voided the marriage and given Michal to Phalti, the son of Laish. We have no news about why the marriage was voided, though Saul's murderous jealousy of David might be some indication. Indeed, we don't even know how David reacted to the loss of his first wife. All we can hope is that the two new ones made up for the loss of the old one.

April 25, 2008

Breadcrumb: What, no trumpets?

In 1 Sam. 25:1, we find out that Samuel died. And that's it, really. The people lamented him, buried him and Ramah, and moved on with their lives, all in the course of a single verse. Surely, the protagonist of the first half of the book, in fact it's namesake, deserves better than a single verse of mourning. And yet, that's all Samuel gets. At least it seems he died in his sleep, and not eviscerated by the Philistines.

April 24, 2008

1 Sam 25-27: David: mob boss, ninja, or turncoat?

(Today's passage covers David's racketeering in Carmel, another near-murder of Saul, and his defection to the Philistines.)

In today's reading we get to see three sides of David, all of them ambiguous.

Story #1 (1 Sam. 25): David is in Carmel with his men, who are starting to get hungry again. (Who would have thought you need to feed an army of 600?) David decides that Nabal, a rich local, is the perfect source of some food, and sends ten of his men to go up to Nabal and tell him so. They greet Nabal nicely enough before getting to the heart of the matter: "we didn't steal your food, so you should give it to us instead." It's a racketeering move if I've ever seen one.

Nabal, somewhat hot-tempered to begin with, refuses. David prepares to march his men up to Carmel to take the food by force and kill all of Nabal's men, when word of the operation reaches Abigail, Nabal's wife. She packs up as much food as her donkey can carry, rushes out to meet David, and throws himself at his feet. She tells David that if he kills Nabal, he'll feel guilty about it later; why not take the food and call it a day?

David agrees and leaves. When Nabal later finds out how close he was to being a pile of ground meat, he goes stone-cold and dies 10 days later. David picks up Abigail at the funeral and marries her. Yes, not only did he cause the death of her husband, he decided to take advantage of the widow.

Story #2 (1 Sam. 26): This is a replay of 1 Sam. 24, when David spared Saul's life in a cave. This time, as Saul pursues him in the wilderness of Ziph, David has advance warning of the king's approach. He sneaks into camp at night, ignores his man-at-arm's encouragement to just kill the king and be done with it, and runs off with Saul's spear and water jug. How was David able to infiltrate a camp of 3,000 people? It seems God put everyone in a deep sleep (or maybe they were passed out from drinking). Or maybe David was a ninja. Who knows?

The next morning, David climbs a hilltop and berates Abner, Saul's captain of the guard, for not protecting his king. Saul repents and promises not to hurt David -- yes, again -- and then leaves.

Story #3 (1 Sam. 27): Knowing that it's only a matter of time before Saul forgets his promise, David makes his way to Gath, a Philistine city, and defects! Understand that David has spent most of his life fighting the Philistines, and has killed countless numbers of them over the course of the book. But now he's on their side (or at least, so he claims). During the 16 months he's there, he leads his men on raiding parties against just about everyone but the Israelites. King Achish thinks David is bound to be his servant forever because the Israelites can't stand him. How little he knows.

So there you have it: David gets protection money from Nabal and marries his widow; slips into Saul's camp with no one the wiser; and seemingly joins forces with his mortal enemies, the Philistines. What's going on with David? I have no clue. On the other hand, it makes for interesting reading.

April 23, 2008

Breadcrumb: The magic ephod

As he runs away from Saul, one of David's companions is Abiathar, the son of priest Ahimelech (you might recall that Doeg killed his entire city on Saul's orders). When David wants to consult with God, he has Abiathar get his ephod, a priestly robe. When Abiathar's wearing the ephod, David can suddenly receive God's word -- in this case, that Saul is coming and the citizens of Keilah will give him up to the king. That knowledge lets David beat a hasty retreat. But we need to ask, what was it about the ephod that let Abiathar suddenly channel God? I can almost imagine Abiathar like the Greek Sibyl (the Greek oracle at Delphi), conveying God's word through the power of his magic tunic. It would make for great TV.

April 22, 2008

Breadcrumb: He's mad!

Early on in our narrative, David runs away into the land of Gath. It turns out, though, that King Achish has heard of David's battle-prowess. David gets worried at this point, perhaps because he thinks Achish will see him as a potential rival. So when the servants drag him before the king, he pretends to be a madman, writing on doorposts and drooling into his beard. The king falls for it hook, line, and sinker, and asks his servants why they've brought yet another madman before him: "Am I so short of madmen that you have to bring this fellow here to carry on like this in front of me?" David gets away, and Achish loses the chance to kill the future king of Israel. Which just goes to show you, acting skills can save your life. (1 Sam. 21:10-15, NIV)

April 21, 2008

1 Sam 21-24: David on the run

(Today's passage covers David and his crew running away from Saul, and Saul pursuing them.)

You've got to hand it to David; he's one sneaky guy. Over the course of these four chapters, he successfully scams a bunch of people and smooth-talks his way into getting an apology (yes, again) from Saul.

To start at the beginning. When last we left our intrepid hero, he'd just kissed goodbye to his best friend, Saul's son Jonathan, and ran off. Now, imagine you're David: you're alone, hungry, weapon-less, and the king is after you. What do you do? Well, the first thing to do is procure some food and a weapon. David chooses to do this by tricking Ahimelech, a priest. He tells him that he's on a secret mission for Saul, and that he needs food and a weapon. (In Judaism, this sort of move is called "chuzpah." In Mexico, you might say he's got cojones the size of elephants.) Ahimelech is completely taken in, gives David a bunch of consecrated bread and Goliath's sword, and that is that. (1 Sam. 21:1-9)

But that is not that. Because it looks like one of Saul's servants, Doeg, also happened to be at Nob when David was speaking to Ahimelech and saw the whole thing. So when Saul is bemoaning that his servants have all betrayed him (he's getting a bit paranoid in his old age), Doeg pipes up and mentions the encounter. (1 Sam. 22:6-10)

Saul summons Ahimelech and condemns him as a traitor. Ahimelech argues in vain that he had no idea what was going on -- after all, David is the king's son-in-law and a loyal member of his household -- but this isn't good enough for Saul. He orders his men to kill Ahimelech and the other priests. They, sensible God-worshippers, refuse. So loyal Doeg kills 85 priests and destroys every man, woman, and child in Nob, just for good measure. The only escapee is Ahimelech's son, Abiathar, who hides out with David. (1 Sam. 22:11-23)

David, meanwhile, has been gathering his own little band of misfits, about 600 debtors and discontents. He saves the town of Keilah from the Philistines, but they threaten to give him up to Saul, so he runs away. In fact, he does a lot of running away, all while Saul is right on his heels. In the wilderness of Maon, David is camped on one side of a mountain, and Saul on the other. David escapes by the skin of his teeth when Saul is suddenly called away to fight yet more Philistines, otherwise the story might have ended a lot differently. (1 Sam. 23)

How does the story end? Saul choses to (ahem) relieve himself in a cave, the very same cave David and his men are hiding. David's men goad him to kill the king, but instead he sneaks forward and cuts off a bit of Saul's robe. When Saul leaves, David rushes forward and announces what he's done, brandishing the robe scrap as proof. He had Saul in his clutches, but let him live, proving that he's not the king's enemy. Saul sees the error of his ways, asks God to bless David, and finally acknowledges that David will be king. He asks David to swear that he won't kill Saul's descendants in the aftermath, which David does. (1 Sam. 24)

And that, as they say, is that. At least until Saul decides to go back on his word... again.

April 20, 2008

Thank you to my readers (and a question)

I'd like to thank all of my devoted readers, and even my less-devoted readers, for coming back day after day and reading my take on the Bible. You guys encourage me to keep writing, even when sometimes life gets a bit hectic.

And, to show my gratitude, I've got a question for you: do you read any other blogs or websites on similar topics to Daily Breadcrumbs? If so, please let me know! I'm looking to expand my blogroll, but the only comparable site I've found so far is Blogging the Bible by David Plotz.

If you know of other Bible blogs on a similar theme to Daily Breadcrumbs, please email me or leave a comment and let me know!

Breadcrumb: Play it again, Sam

Back in 1 Sam. 10, we found out the source of an apparently proverbial saying, "is Saul also among the prophets?" Back then, it was because of one of Samuel's signs that Saul would be king: Saul prophesied with a group of singing prophets on his way back to his father's house. In 1 Sam. 19, we're given an alternate explanation: when Saul finally gets fed up with sending incompetent assassins after David, he goes down to kill him himself. However, instead of doing the murderous deed, he strips naked and prophesies with Samuel. Slightly more ominous, don't you think? It would help if we actually knew what the proverb meant, of course. But still, it's nice to keep our options open.

April 19, 2008

Breadcrumb: The Bible's first homosexual lovers?

You've got to wonder about Jonathan and David. In chapter 18, Jonathan loves David "as his own soul." They make a covenant, and Jonathan gives David all of his clothes. (1 Sam. 18:1-4) Throughout the rest of the book, it seems that the two are (at the very least) best friends. Jonathan hides David when Saul is trying to kill him, reasons with his dad to bring David back into the fold, and encourages David to run away when it's clear that's not going to happen. Late in chapter 20, the two men kiss and weep when David needs to leave. Though it's not clear in the text, it's certainly possible to make a case that these two were closeted lovers. Or perhaps people just expressed friendship differently back then.

April 18, 2008

1 Sam 18-20: How many times do I have to kill you, boy?

(Today's passage covers Jonathan and David's deepening friendship, and Saul's deepening jealousy towards David.)

Things were going so well. David, the poster-child for Israelite can-do power, was in King Saul's good books, carrying his armour and playing the harp. And then -- boom! -- Saul decides to kill the kid. And we're not talking a half-hearted attempt, either: over the course of these three chapters, Saul tries to kill David about a dozen times.

So what happened? The trouble seems to stem from a silly women's song: "Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands." (1 Sam. 18:6-7) Saul hears this and worries that since David is already being called a more accomplished warrior than him (Saul), the only thing left for David to claim is Saul's kingdom. This sparks a jealous rage that doesn't subside until Saul dies.

These three chapters are really like a textbook in how not to get someone killed. First, Saul tries to surprise David by spearing him through with a javelin. David dodges, Saul tries again, and David runs for his life. (1 Sam. 18:10-11) Then Saul tries to be sneaky, offering David his eldest daughter in marriage if he'll fight Saul's battles (assuming, of course, that the Philistines will finish him off). David politely demures, and Saul is forced to marry her off to someone else. (1 Sam. 18:17-19)

Then Saul decides to offer David his younger daughter, Michal, who also happens to be madly in love with David. David argues that he doesn't have dowry money to marry a princess, so Saul tells him instead to gather up 100 Philistine foreskins, sure that this time the Philistines will take him out. Alas, that doesn't work either, and David brings back not 100, but 200 Philistine foreskins and marries the girl. (1 Sam. 18:20-27)

Chapter 19 just continues the trend: Saul tries to get his son Jonathan to kill David (a foolish move, given that David and Jonathan seem to be best friends). Jonathan talks him out of it, and Saul promises not to try to kill David again. This promise lasts all of three verses, until Saul tries the old "spear him with a javelin" trick again, which about as much success as the last time.

Saul sends men after David, but his wife (the one David won with 200 Philistine foreskins) helps him escape, throws the bedcovers over a household idol (and why did David have idols?, we might ask), and feigns ignorance. (1 Sam. 19:11-17)

David runs away to Samuel, who's moonlighting in this chapter with a surprise re-appearance. Saul sends one, two, three sets of men after him, all of whom fall down and prophesy. He comes himself, only to strip and prophesy himself. (1 Sam. 19:18-24)

Chapter 20 consists of a long, drawn-out plan to get Jonathan to realize Saul is, in fact, trying to kill David, despite his oath early in chapter 19. Jonathan is forced to face facts, and the two best friends fall weeping into each others arms before David runs away... again.

At this point, you've got to wonder about Saul. Nearly a dozen failed murder attempts, at a boy who very recently was his favourite. Something has definitely come off-kilter in his brain, and it's only going to get worse from here.

April 17, 2008

Breadcrumb: Because once is never enough

Some of you might remember from my breadcrumb a few days ago that Samuel prophesied Saul's kingdom wouldn't continue because of his disobedience at Gilgal. In 1 Sam. 15, the message is hammered home again. Saul was supposed to go completely wipe out Amalek for their oppression of Israel during the Exodus. Saul does this... mostly. But he saves King Agag and the best animals to sacrifice to God. Samuel shows up and reminds Saul that this wasn't the agreement, that the sacrifices are worthless because Saul disobeyed God, and that God has rejected him as king. You know, just in case he forgot since the last time.

April 16, 2008

Breadcrumb: David-vu

1 Sam. 16 and 17 present us with a bit of a conundrum. You see, it appears that Saul meets David in chapter 16, presented to him as Jesse's son and a good harp player. Saul gets along great with David and makes him his armour-bearer. However, in the very next chapter (featuring Goliath), Saul claims never to have met David before, and needs to send Abner, captain of the host, to find out who he is. I offer the following attempted explanation, which has no base in the text except that it would make logical sense: chapter 17 happens before chapter 16. David, a nobody from Judah, kills the mighty warrior Goliath, and Saul takes an interest in him. When he finds out the boy can also play a mean harp, he invites him to the palace, makes him his armour-bearer, and the rest, as they say, is history. If you've got a better explanation, I'd be happy to hear it.

April 15, 2008

1 Sam 15-17: Enter David, exit Goliath

(Today's passage covers God's rejection of Saul and his appointment of David. Also, it relates the story of David and Goliath.)

It's probably one of the best-known stories outside of the Pentateuch: David and Goliath. The story has inspired countless paintings, larger-than-life statues, and even a few Simpsons gags. So instead of relating the events to you, as I've been doing for a lot of the lesser-known stories, today we're going to play, "commonly held (but wrong!) myths about the story of David and Goliath."

Myth #1: David was a warrior in Saul's army.

In fact, David wasn't in the army at all. He wasn't even supposed to be at the battle. Three of his older brothers (David was the youngest of eight sons) were warriors in Saul's army, and Jesse, his father, asked him to bring them food and find out how they were doing. David showed up just as the armies were getting ready to fight, and just so happened to hear Goliath's challenge, which he was issuing for the fortieth time! (1 Sam. 17:12-23)

Myth #2: David was a humble and meek.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. When David saw the Israelites quaking because of Goliath's challenge, he wondered what was going on. But he didn't decide to actually take up the challenge until he found out that whoever defeated Goliath would win some very sweet prizes from King Saul: wealth, exemption from taxes, and his daughter's hand in marriage. (1 Sam. 17:25-27)

Myth #3: Saul expected David to succeed.

Actually, no one expected David to succeed! Eliab, David's oldest brother, got angry at David's presumption. King Saul said he was too young. And Goliath was actually insulted that the Israelites would send a little boy as their champion; it was like a slap in the face. Imagine the massed hordes of both Philistines and Israelites looking on: little David with no armour and no sword, against the 9-foot-tall pride of the Philistine army, completely with 125-pound breastplate. Let's face it, who would you expect to win? (1 Sam. 17:31-44)

Myth #4: David kills Goliath with his slingshot.

While David does knock Goliath unconscious with a lucky slung stone to the forehead, he actually kills the giant by beheading him with Goliath's own sword. Which is why Donatello's David (warning: not safe for work) shows David with a sword, one foot on top of Goliath's severed head. (1 Sam. 17:48-51)

So there you have it: common myths about David and Goliath, dispelled right here on Daily Breadcrumbs. Come back tomorrow when I'll ask the eternal question, "how did Saul meet this David guy in the first place?"

April 14, 2008

Breadcrumb: To heck with war, there's money to be made!

Even though there's a war going on, it looks like there are no smiths in Israel to make swords or spears for the soldiers. Instead, the men are left to fend for themselves, sharpening their ploughshares, sickles, axes, and mattocks into weapons. Of course, like I said, there were no smiths in Israel. So where's a soldier to go to get a farm implement sharpened? The Philistines, of course! Yes, they may be our enemy, but they're the ones with the anvils and furnaces. Which just goes to show that commerce continues, even when people hate each other's guts. (1 Sam. 13:19-21)

April 13, 2008

Breadcrumb: It was good while it lasted

When Samuel appointed Saul king, he told him to go down to Gilgal and wait for him before making the ritual sacrifices. So Saul goes, along with his army, and waits. He waits seven days, but Samuel never shows up. Finally, the men grumble and start leaving, and Saul decides to take things into his own hands. He offers the sacrifice and... you guessed it, Samuel shows up just as he's finishing. For Saul's disobedience, Samuel prophesies that Saul's kingdom won't continue, and God will choose another to replace him. Which is sort-of a shame, since Saul's son, Jonathan, actually looks like he'd make a pretty good king. On the other hand, it gives full justification for David to oust Saul later in the book, so all is well. (1 Sam. 13:7-15)

April 12, 2008

1 Sam 13-14: Those crazy kids

(Today's passage covers some battles against the Philistines, featuring the exploits of Saul's son, Jonathan.)

Now that Saul has had some initial military success, he decides to tackle the remaining problem, the Philistines camped at Michmash. (Don't you love those Bible names?) After a preliminary victory in 1 Sam. 13, in which it appears Saul's son, Jonathan, did most of the fighting, Saul is ready to take the war path again. Never mind that the Philistines have 30,000 chariots, 6,000 cavalry, and countless infantry units. (1 Sam. 13:5) Never mind that Saul only has 600 men with him (1 Sam. 13:15, 14:2) and that only he and Jonathan have swords, leaving the rest of his men to wield any pointed bit of metal they have lying around. (1 Sam. 13:19-22) The point is that Saul is ready for battle, and no fluke of circumstance is going to stop him.

Saul's son seems to be just as hot-headed as his father. In the dead of night, he and his armour-bearer sneak out of the Israelite camp, through a narrow pass between two cliffs, and towards the Philistines. And -- here's the important part -- they decide to take on the entire massed Philistine horde by themselves. Jonathan puts his trust in God, saying that if the Philistines shout, "come up to us," it's a sign that God has delivered them all into his hands and they should go in swinging. The Philistines do, and Jonathan does. He kills 20 men in the first assault, enough to put the Philistines into a panic in which they start killing one another. (1 Sam. 14:1-15)

At this point, Saul realizes something is amiss. A split-second later, he realizes that his son is missing. No time to waste, he summons the ark of God, repeals his order to summon the ark of God, and polishes off the rest of the Philistines. (1 Sam. 14:16-23)

But we're not done with Jonathan just yet. He saves Israel, true, but he nearly dooms them as well. Because when he was on his Philistine-slaying rampage, Saul ordered the army to fast all day in order to appease God and gain the victory. Jonathan comes back, hungry, and eats some honey. The men try to stop him, but being ravenous with hunger themselves, are easily swayed by Jonathan's argument, "the battle would have gone even better if you'd been allowed to eat." This is all the convincing the men need to go out, slaughter the captured Philistine animals, and eat them raw, with the blood still in the bodies (a cardinal sin, against even the Noahide laws). (1 Sam. 14:24-32)

You'd think it would be the blood-eating that's the problem, but God blames Jonathan (whether for eating they honey or inciting the men to eat blood is unclear). Jonathan stands up bravely, in the manner of young heroes everywhere, and says, "I'm ready to die." Saul is ready to kill him, too, but the men rally to Jonathan's aid and convince Saul not to do it. (1 Sam. 14:33-45)

In the end, then, everything works out. The Philistines are dead, the men eventually get to eat, and Jonathan (the ever-popular young favourite) doesn't die. What more could you ask for from this latest instalment of the Bible action movie series?

April 11, 2008

Breadcrumb: Have I mentioned this is a bad idea?

1 Sam. 12 is Samuel's farewell speech. (Even though he reappears throughout the book, he gives his official retirement speech early.) One of the things he makes sure to point out is that asking for a king is, in no uncertain terms, still a bad idea. He even sends thunder and rain at harvest-time, just to show the people what a bad idea it is. He softens the blow only slightly by telling the people that if both they and the king continue to obey and worship God, everything will be all right. But if they don't, God will turn away from them just like he turned away from their ancestors. Can you see what's coming over the next few hundred years? Bonus points to whoever says that "everything being all right" is not looking likely.

April 10, 2008

Breadcrumb: How many prophets *were* there?

One of Samuel's three signs to mark Saul's appointment as king is that Saul will meet a group of singing, music-making prophets, and that he will prophesy with them. In fact, this actually happens, to the amazement of Saul's acquaintances, to the point where "is Saul also among the prophets?" becomes a proverbial saying. But at this juncture we have to ask ourselves, how many prophets were there in ancient Israel? If there was an entire band of prophets travelling in a group, what was the point of having Samuel the prophet as leader? Were these just occasional prophets, or lesser prophets, or what? In either case, the waters are a little murky for Samuel, who pointed them out in the first place. (1 Sam. 10:5-6, 9-13)

April 09, 2008

1 Sam 9-12: So far, so good

(Today's passage covers Saul's selection as king, his rescue of the city of Jabesh Gilead, and Samuel's farewell speech.)

We've known for some time that the Israelites have wanted a king, so that the terrors of the era of Judges could be put to an end. Also, so that the Israelites could be a nation like any other, and thus maybe avoid being conquered every twenty years or so. Samuel, the prophet chosen by God, finally agrees to their pleading, despite telling them repeatedly that it's a really dumb idea.

The man he chooses is named Saul, a Benjaminite from a good family fallen on hard times. We first meet Saul as, accompanied by his trusty servant, he hunts for his father's lost donkeys. They're conscientious, searching most of the cities of Benjamin, before deciding that the hunt is in vain and they should probably head back before Saul's father starts bemoaning him instead of the donkeys. (1 Sam. 9:1-5)

However, just before turning back, they decide to consult Samuel, the man of God, to see if maybe he has any insights as to the location of the lost donkeys. In fact, Samuel is waiting for them, having been alerted to his presence by God the day before. When Saul comes up to give his meagre gift (1/4 shekel of silver, or about 1/10 oz), Samuel invites him to eat at his own table, gives him the best spot and the best food. Saul is overwhelmed: "Am I not a Benjamite, of the smallest of the tribes of Israel? And my family the least of all the families of the tribe of Benjamine? Wherefore then speakest thou so to me?" (1 Sam. 9:21, KJV)

Samuel pours anointing oil on Saul's head, gives him a few signs that all come true, and the deal is as good as done. However, when Samuel goes to officially choose the king in front of the whole congregation, Saul -- who should be easily visible, being a head and shoulders taller than everyone else -- is nowhere to be found. He's hiding with the baggage, perhaps because he doesn't want the burden of responsibility. (1 Sam 10:17-27)

Once confirmed, though, Saul proves himself a competent warlord. When the Ammonites besiege the city of Jabesh Gilead (we might remember them as the instigators of the Israelite civil war from the end of Judges), and men of Jabesh ask for a truce. Nahash, leader of the Ammonites, agrees to this on the condition that he can gouge out the eyes of every man of Jabesh. Jabesh, rightfully worried, calls to Saul, and Saul calls to Israel, amasses a 300,000-man army, and slaughters the Ammonites for most of a morning. (1 Sam. 11:1-11)

At this point, Saul's followers want to kill all those nay-sayers who didn't want him as king. Saul, though, commands that no one will be killed.

So far, Saul is everything we would like in a king: conscientious, humble, lawful. He's a worthy war-leader but also merciful to those people who may have criticized him. He's also very tall, which never hurts. In fact, at least in these early days, it's easy to see why Samuel (or God, depending on how you look at it) chose him as king.

It's just too bad his behaviour immediately starts to go downhill from this point forward.

April 08, 2008

Breadcrumb: We want a king!

After the unfortunate incident with the ark, the Israelites decide what would really solve the problem would be for them to have a king and be like everyone else. Samuel tries to talk them out of it by telling them how a king would behave. Specifically, he says a king would conscript their sons into his army; conscript their daughters to be his cooks; and take their land, produce, cattle, and servants. The people will cry out to God because of the king, and God will not hear their cries. (1 Sam. 8:10-18) You'd think this would be warning enough, but somehow the Israelites seem to have developed a communal case of selective deafness, because they still insist on having a king. Some people will never learn, it seems.

April 07, 2008

Breadcrumb: When one door closes...

After the first battle against the Philistines, Eli (the high priest) finds out that the Philistines have killed his two sons and captured the ark. He is so distraught that he falls over. Unfortunately, he's 98 years old, and the fall breaks his neck. On the other hand, when his very pregnant daughter-in-law hears the news, she immediately goes into labour. After a hard delivery, she decides to name the child "Ichabod," which means "no glory." She intends it to mean "the glory has departed from Israel," but even so, I can only imagine the teasing Ichabod must have gotten because of his name. (1 Sam 4:12-22)

April 06, 2008

1 Samuel 4-8: Hot potato!

(Today's passage covers the Philistine capture of the ark, its eventual return, the battle against the Philistines, and Israel's request for a king.)

Today's lesson: sometimes the safe bet... isn't.

Before Samuel whips the Israelites into shape, they have yet again fallen under the sway of foreign powers, this time the Philistines. The Israelites, desperate to throw off the Philistine yoke, send their troops in to battle. In short, things don't go very well: the Philistines kill 4,000 Israelite fighters. (1 Sam. 4:1-2)

So Israel decides to embark on a new, guaranteed-to-win strategy: they call for the ark of the covenant. Surely, God will be on our side if his ark is at the battleground with us! Surely, having the ark on our side will mean our glorious victory! It worked for Joshua, didn't it?

The Israelites call for the ark, and the Philistines realize their end is near. They quake, they tremble... and then they rally themselves, deciding that if they're going to die, they're going to die fighting. (1 Sam. 4:6-9) Then they slaughter 30,000 Israelites (including Eli, the high priest's, two sons) and capture the ark. So much for a sure thing.

Israel laments the loss of the ark, but the Philistines' problems are just getting started. They bring the ark back to Ashdod and place it in the temple of their god Dagon. When they come back the next day, they find the statue of Dagon prostrate before the ark. After righting the statue, they come back the day after to find Dagon not only prostrate, but with his hands and head cut off. (1 Sam. 5:1-5)

As if this weren't enough, the Philistines at Ashdod are also afflicted with tumours (NIV) or haemorrhoids (KJV). So they do what any sensible people would do, they send the ark awak. Specifically, they send it to Gath, whereupon the men there are afflicted with groinal haemorrhoids. (I swear I could not make this up if I tried.) The men of Gath try to send the ark to Ekron, where the men sensibly say, "keep that thing as far away from us as possible." (1 Sam 5:6-10)

After seven months of this torture, the Philistines come up with a brilliant solution: send the ark back to the Israelites. Of course, things are never that simple. The Philistine priests tell them that they must appease the Israelites for stealing the ark in the first place. To do this, they include five golden haemorrhoids and five golden rats along with the ark. I don't even know what golden haemorrhoids would look like.

They attach the ark to a new cart, tethered by two cows who have never been yoked before. The Philistines figure that if the plague was really God's doing, the cows would pull the ark directly to Bethlehem; if it was all just the result of unfortunate chance, the cows would go somewhere else. Unfortunately for the Philistines, the cows go directly to Bethlehem, where the people offer them as a burnt offering to God. (1 Sam 6:1-15) They take the ark to the house of Aminadab, where it stays for 20 years. Of course, God also strikes 50,070 men of Bethshemesh blind for having looked upon the ark (KJV, NIV says 70 men, which would make more sense), but sometimes that's the price you have to pay.

As for the Philistines, Samuel finally gets the Israelites to put away their foreign gods, so that they're back in God's favour. Thereupon they go to battle against the Philistines, beat them soundly, and throw off the foreign yoke. (1 Sam 7) So things work out well all around, except for the Philistines... and the 50,070 men who died because they saw the ark.

April 05, 2008

Breadcrumb: Are you deaf?

When God calls Samuel for the first time, Samuel goes rushing to Eli, thinking that it was the old priest who summoned him. Eli, confused, tells him that it wasn't him, and orders Samuel to go back to bed. This happens a second time, and then a third. Finally, Eli realizes that Samuel must be hearing the voice of God, and tells him not to come running the next time it happens. On the fourth calling, God gives Samuel a prophecy, the first of many. But we have to wonder whether God was teasing Samuel all this time. Either God sounded like Eli, in which case it's only natural that Samuel would run to his foster-father, or he didn't, in which case we have to wonder about this inauspicious start to Samuel's career as a prophet. (1 Sam. 3)

April 04, 2008

Breadcrumb: Either way, it is bad for Hannah

Hannah, Samuel's mother, was barren for a long time. This wasn't the worst situation for Elkanah (her husband) since he had another wife, Peninnah. Peninnah had many children, and she was constantly provoking Hannah because of her lack. However, once Hannah has her son, Samuel, it seems that the provocations stop. Even though Hannah doesn't keep her son -- she gives him to the temple to be raised by Eli -- the fact that she finally had a son is enough to make her worthy in the eyes of the community; she has fulfilled the duties of a wife. She does go on to have other children (3 sons and 2 daughters, according to 1 Sam. 2:21), which might have been some consolation. On the other hand, it seems that according to the Bible, giving a son up for fostering is better than having no son at all.

April 03, 2008

1 Samuel 1-3: A study in contrasts

(Today's passage covers Samuel's birth and his dedication to God, the wickedness of Eli's sons, and Samuel's call to God.)

The first three chapters of Samuel are a study in contrasts between Samuel, the commoner child dedicated at birth to serve God, and the sons of Eli, the high priest, Hophni and Phinehas (yes, another Phinehas).

Samuel, from the moment of his birth, is a man of God. His mother, Hannah, is one of the many barren Biblical women, following in the footsteps of Sarah and Rachel. She prays fervently and vows that if God gives her a son, she will dedicate him to His service. Furthermore, he will be a Nazarite, like Samson. (1 Sam. 1:11) As we might expect, God remembers Hannah and grants her a son, whom she names Samuel. True to her word, she brings him to the temple, where he ministers to God.

Even though Samson is from a non-Levite family (his father was from Ephraim), everyone likes him. He finds favour both with God and with his fellow men. (1 Sam. 2:26) Though he's still a child at this point in the narrative, it seems that he is everything one could hope for in a boy: obedient, loyal, God-fearing, and friendly.

Contrast him with the two priestly sons, Hophni and Phinehas. These two men are wicked. Despite being ordained priests, they don't worship God, and they have earned the ire of their fellow men. Among their crimes, they try to gain more than their fair portion of the sacrificial meat (1 Sam. 2:12-17) and sleep with many of their congregants. (1 Sam. 2:22-25) They threaten physical violence when they don't get their way (1 Sam. 2:16), and just generally seem like nasty people.

They're so bad, in fact, that God curses Eli: he tells him that all his descendants will die young, in the prime of their lives, and that both his sons will die in a single day. The priesthood will pass to someone worthy, and Eli's family will beg before him to have enough food to eat. (1 Sam. 2:27-36)

Obviously, these chapters are a warning against inherited power. The sons of Eli, the ordained priests, are wicked and corrupt. Samuel, a commoner, has a pure, good heart. Eventually, everyone in Israel knows that Samuel is a prophet (1 Sam. 3:20), while God is on the verge of destroying Eli's family. In the Bible, worth is rarely determined by lineage but by deeds. The book of Genesis had a knack for favouring younger sons over their elder brothers. Gideon, the mighty warrior from Judg. 6, was a nobody from Manasseh. Now, again we have a worthy man from a common background, who is raised up to be a prophet for the entirety of Israel.

In this, as in many things, the Hebrews were ahead of their times. Unfortunately, they didn't listen to the warning, and fell back into the trap of inherited power over and over again, just like everyone else.

April 02, 2008

Breadcrumb: It's all in the details

When Boaz meets Naomi's other near-kinsman (Ruth 4), he's sneakier than we might expect. He starts by asking the kinsman if he wants to redeem Elimelech's (Naomi's husband's) land. Seeing a chance for an easy profit, the kinsman agrees. Then Boaz throws in the unexpected curveball: if you redeem the land, you'll also be marrying Ruth, Naomi's Moabite daughter-in-law. The kinsman realizes that his inheritance will no longer be his own, but Elimelech's, and balks. He tells Boaz to redeem the land -- and the girl -- instead, and seals the oath in front of the town elders. So, in the end, everyone is happy: Boaz gets to marry Ruth; Ruth gets to marry Boaz; and the kinsman keeps his inheritance and does not become the ancestor of Jesus.

April 01, 2008

Breadcrumb: Gleaning can be a dangerous business

As I mentioned yesterday, Ruth spends the harvest gleaning in Boaz's field, so that she and Naomi can have some food. While this may seem straightforward, it was apparently a more dangerous situation than it originally appears. Boaz specifically tells his men not to touch Ruth. (Ruth 2:9) Later, Naomi confirms the potential danger and tells her to stay in Boaz's field, because elsewhere she might be harmed. (Rush 2:22) Though it seems simple to us now, it must have been terrifying for Ruth, a foreigner newly-arrived in a strange land, with no husband to protect her. With all the raping and murdering we've read about in the book of Judges, no wonder she was happy to find a decent man to protect her.

March 31, 2008

Attention Montreal-based readers!

Would you be interested in talking with me about the Bible face-to-face, in addition to reading about it on Daily Breadcrumbs? I'm thinking of starting up a monthly Montreal-area meet-up. We'll focus on the same texts I'm writing about for Daily Breadcrumbs, and we'll take a similar approach: literary, historical, philosophical, and (sometimes) religious. Everyone will be welcome, regardless of religious belief or non-belief. Meetings will take place once a month on Saturday afternoons.

If you want to participate, leave a comment so I can gauge the level of interest!

(The girl behind the Breadcrumbs)

Ruth 1-4: A welcome interlude

(Today's passage covers the story of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz.)

If you read yesterday's gripe about the book of Judges, and then read the book of Ruth, you'll understand why I love it so much. I've never read it before, but it has suddenly become one of my favourite books.

In a nutshell, for those who haven't had the time to read it yourselves (though I highly recommend that you do), the book of Ruth centres around three main characters: Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz. Naomi, a married woman from Bethlehem in Judah, leaves to Moab with her husband and two sons in order to escape a famine in Israel. There, her husband dies, her sons marry Moabite women, and then they too die, leaving only Naomi and her daughters-in-law.

After ten years, Naomi sees the famine has ended and returns to her hometown of Bethlehem. She tries to dissuade her daughters-in-law from following her, and eventually convinces one of them -- Orpah -- to turn back. But Ruth, the other daughter-in-law, holds fast, with one of the most touching speeches in the Bible to date: "Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me." (Ruth 1:16, NIV) Don't you wish someone would talk to you that way?

Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem in time for the barley harvest, dead broke. So Ruth goes out into the fields to collect gleanings from behind the harvesters. (In ancient Israel, it was considered an act of charity to leave the gleanings in your field for the poor to collect.) Unbeknownst to her, she winds up gleaning in the field of a near-kinsman of Naomi's, a man named Boaz.

In a series of touching and beautiful encounters, Ruth and Boaz develop a deep affection. Naomi finally convinces Ruth that it's time to find another husband, so Ruth dresses up and perfumes herself and lies at Boaz's feet on the threshing floor. Boaz realizes what has happened, expresses gratitude that Ruth has continued to pursue him (and not younger men), and promises to do his "duty as a kinsman" if the one living closer kinsman will not. (As we recall from Gen. 38, if a woman's husband died, she was supposed to marry his brother, and the children from that union would continue the inheritance of the dead, first husband.)

Boaz finds the close kinsman, determines that he doesn't want Naomi's late husband's inheritance if it means also marrying Ruth, and marries her himself. Ruth and Boaz have a son, and Naomi is like a second mother to him. This son, Obed, is King David's grandfather.

And there you have it: no divine intervention, no murders, no wars. Just a simple, domestic love story with a happy ending. What a welcome change after the book of Judges.

A note to my Jewish readers: if you have been following along in the Hebrew Bible, you may be wondering what the heck the book of Ruth is doing here. In the Hebrew Bible, Ruth comes much later, as part of the Ketuvim, after all the prophets. The reason Ruth is here is that I am following the book order in Back to the Bible, which follows the Protestant arrangement of books, so the order may be slightly different from what you are used to. Never fear! The next readings will be back on track with 1 Samuel, so we'll all be on the same proverbial page again.

March 30, 2008

Final Reflections on Judges

Judges has been quite the emotional roller-coaster. Every time you think it can't get more depraved and bloody, it just keeps getting worse.

The first thing we have to realize is despite the title, the "judges" are not in fact judges but war-leaders. Every one of the judges in the text has daring, bloody exploits, and not one of them is shown leading the country in peace-time. In fact, the judges in the book are mostly not the sort of people you'd want ruling you in peace-time: most of them seem to have some pretty deep psychological problems.

The book of Judges is covers 400 years of wars, both foreign and civil. For every hero who charges off and defeats the massed hordes of Midianites with a force of only 300 men (Gideon, Judg. 7), there's another depraved soul who kills his 70 half-brothers and slaughters Israelite villages (Abimelech, his son, Judg. 8). For every cunning, who-would-have-seen-it-coming underdog who takes down a fat, self-righteous king (Eglon, Judg. 3; Jael, Judg. 4-5), there's a tribe who decides to use force of arms to take down their fellow Israelites and conquer their land (Dan, Judg. 18). It's not a pretty picture.

Judges also shows us how some Genesis stories might have turned out if God didn't step in at the last minute to save the day. We know that God tested Abraham's faith by telling him to kill his son, Isaac. (Gen. 22) But every Bible-school-child knows that God stayed Abraham's hand at the land minute and had Abraham sacrifice a ram instead. Jephthah, in Judg. 11, doesn't get that lucky. He promises to sacrifice the first thing that greets him after his victorious conquest against the Ammonites. When that "thing" turns out to be his only daughter, his only child, God doesn't tell Jephthah to stop. He is forced to complete the sacrifice so that all Israel will mourn his daughter until the end of time.

Similarly, God saves Lot from sodomy in Gen. 19. He even saves Lot's two virgin daughters from being deflowered by the mob. For their crimes, God strikes the men of Sodom blind, and then destroys their city. In Judg. 19, a Levite in the same situation doesn't have that deus ex machina. Instead, the mob rapes his concubine all night, and God does nothing to stop it. The Levite eventually goes home, kills his wife, and sparks the biggest civil war in the whole book, nearly wiping out the entire tribe of Benjaminites.

As the text is constantly reminding us, there were no kings at this time, and every man did as he wished. The author seems to be blaming these horrid episodes on the lack of a monarch: if only there were a king, this wouldn't have happened. But, as we'll see starting in the next book big (Samuel), Israel doesn't become much better once they do have a king. It's enough to make you start questioning human nature... or at least what makes compelling literature.

March 29, 2008

Breadcrumb: This time, we'll be ready

There's nothing worse for a besieging, 400,000-man army than to run out of food just as the battles are about to start. This is why Israel prepares for their war by sending 10% of their army as scouts to gather food for their comrades at Gibeah. (Judg. 20:9-10) This also saves the bulk of the army from gathering up crops themselves. In the end, it probably didn't make much of a difference, as the battle only lasted three days. Still, it's good to know that if things had gone on longer, at least the army wouldn't die of starvation.

March 28, 2008

Breadcrumb: Who's the priest?

In Judg. 20:28, we're right in the middle of the civil war between Israel and Benjamin. The Israelites ask for counsel from God via his priest, Phinehas. Wait a minute, here! This is the same Phinehas who's Aaron's grandson, who was alive during the desert wanderings and the conquest of Israel. But we've read in the book of Judges that whole generations (perhaps as much as 400 years) have passed since the conquest of Canaan. This means either the civil war takes place much earlier, and out of sequence, or that Phineas is a throw-back to the early Genesis genealogies, where people lived hundreds of years. Myself, I think the former is more likely.

March 27, 2008

Judges 19-21: And you thought Sodom and Gomorrah was bad

(Today's passage covers the story of a Levite and his concubine, and how his actions sparked a civil war in Israel that nearly wiped out the entire Benjaminite tribe.)

You remember the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, don't you? (Gen. 19) Lot (Abraham's nephew) was staying with some strangers in Sodom, when the men of the village wanted to rape him. Lot's host offered his two virgin daughters, but before he gave them to the mob, God struck the men of Sodom blind and then destroyed the city.

Things didn't work out so well for a certain Levite who had the same experience in Judg. 19.

The set-up is the same: the Levite is staying in Gibeah, a city in Benjamin. Again, the mob assembles and demands his host, an old man from Ephraim, bring out the guest so that they can sleep with him. The host offers his own virgin daughter and the Levite's concubine. The mob doesn't listen, but they take the concubine anyway and rape her all night. (Judg. 19:18-25)

In the morning, the Levite finds his concubine prone on his doorstep, unable even to get up onto his donkey; he has to put her on himself. He takes her home and promptly kills her, chops her up into twelve pieces, and sends a piece to each of the twelve tribes of Israel. (Judg. 19:26-30)

You'd think this would be brutality enough. We're just getting started.

The Israelites are incensed at the Benjaminites. They mass an army of 400,000 warriors. They give Benjamin a chance to give up the men of Gibeah; Benjamin instead masses an army of 26,700 warriors to fight against them. Thus ensues one of the bloodiest civil wars in the Bible to date. (Judg. 20:1-17)

In brief, the battles are short and bloody. The first two days, the Benjaminites hold their own against vastly superior numbers and kill 40,000 Israelites. The Israelites grieve and pray to God, who tells them to continue the attack. On the third day, the Israelites set an ambush, lure the Benjaminites out of the city, slaughter 25,000 of them, and burn Gibeah to the ground. The only remaining Benjaminites -- 600 of them -- take refuge in a cave for four months. (Judg. 20:18-47)

You'd think this would be the end of it. It isn't.

The Israelites eventually repent their slaughter and are worried for their Benjaminite brethren living in the cave at Rimmon. They wonder how the Benjaminites will continue as a tribe, since the Israelites killed all their women. There's one further complication: the entire assembled congregation of Israel swore an oath at Mizpah that none of them would give their daughters in marriage to a Benjaminite. (Judg. 21:1-7)

The easy answer--go back on their oath and give their daughters as wives to Benjamin--is unthinkable. Instead, the Israelites realize that no one from Jabesh Gilead was at the assembly. There's your answer! Send 12,000 crack Israelite troops to Jabesh Gilead, slaughter the men and married women, and bring back the 400 virgins to be Benjaminte brides. (Judg. 21:8-14)

One more problem: there aren't enough virgins in Jabesh Gilead. So the Israelites tell Benjamin to go to Shiloh, wait in the vineyards, and capture the girls out dancing for their annual festival. In an episode reminiscent of the rape of the Sabines, Benjamin does just that, and everyone's happy... except for the girls' brothers and fathers, we assume. (Judg. 21:15-23)

It almost makes you wish for the simple days of Sodom and Gomorrah.

March 26, 2008

Breadcrumb: Home, by hook or by crook

In Judg. 18, we find out that the tribe of Dan still hasn't come into their inheritance. We can only assume it's still in the hands of non-Israelite heathens. It's been several generations since the conquest of Canaan, and everyone seems to have settled down into complacency. So what's a hard-working-but-homeless tribe to do? The obvious answer is to conquer land from your decadent Israelite brethren. Dan scouts out the land, finds a juicy plum of a city at Laish--careless, quiet, secure, and alone--and sends out 600 men to conquer it. They burn the city to the ground, kill the inhabitants, and rename it "Dan," just to show who's really in charge. And while they're killing their countrymen anyway, they decide to set up a cult to graven images, using the idols they stole from Micah (see yesterday's breadcrumb). Because if you're going to be ostracized from the rest of your kinsmen, you might as well go all out.

March 25, 2008

Breadcrumb: If I had an idol

In Judg. 17-18, we read about Micah and his idols. Micah is just a normal guy, a man from Ephraim, who wanted to have some household gods. So he does. His mother pays a founder to make him some graven images, he gets himself an ephod and teraphim (consecrated garments), and has his son act as priest. But what you really need to close the deal is an honest-to-God, descended from the holy tribe priest. So Micah hires a young, wandering Levite to be his priest for 10 shekels a year. And all is well until 600 warriors from Dan steal away his idols, ephod, and priest, and leave Micah with nothing. Graven images are fickle that way, I suppose.

March 24, 2008

Judges 16-18: Please... with a cherry on top?

(Today's passage covers the story of Samson and Delilah, and the story of Micah's idols.)

The story of Samson and Delilah is one of the best-known Old Testament stories outside the Pentateuch. Everyone likes to feel bad for Samson, which is strange, because he had all the chances in the world to save himself.

The story is told in Judg. 16, and it goes something like this: having escaped death many times already, and with an ever-increasing death-count, Samson falls in love with yet another Philistine woman, Delilah. When Samson married his first wife in Judg. 14, the wedding guests used her to get Samson to reveal the answer to his riddle. With Delilah, we have a repeat performance with higher stakes: the Philistine leaders ask Delilah to discover the secret of Samson's strength, and promise her 1,100 pieces of silver each if she figures it out. (For the curious, that's about $7,660 each in today's dollars at today's silver prices.) (Judg. 16:3-5)

Delilah tries. She asks Samson for the secret to his strength, and he tells her that if someone binds him with seven new bow-strings, he'll lose his strength. So Delilah ties him up with seven bow-strings and shouts, "the Philistines are here!" Samson promptly breaks the bow-strings and reveals the deception. (Judg. 16:6-9)

Delilah tries again. And again. Samson tells her his strength will be lost if he's bound with new ropes, if his hair is braided into a tapestry, and probably a whole lot of other lies. Each time, Delilah tries the ploy, shouts out that the Philistines are here, and Samson breaks free of the bonds. Delilah keeps asking until Samson "was vexed unto death." (Judg. 16:10-16, KJV)

Finally, the grand reveal: Samson finally tells Delilah that his strength comes from his hair, and that if his hair is cut, he'll lose his strength. Delilah, predictably, cuts Samson's hair and yells out "the Philistines are here!" Samson doesn't realize God has left his, tries to fight back, and utterly fails to do anything. The Philistines gouge out his eyes, bind him with brass chains, and take him away. (Judg. 16:17-22)

Here we must ask ourselves one very obvious question: how dumb was Samson, really? Delilah asked him again and again for the secret to his strength, and she kept doing the things he told her and calling in the Philistines to capture him. Sooner or later, a man's bound to catch on that something isn't quite right here. But not Samson, who keeps stringing Delilah along with ever-more lies. It's not like Samson has any qualms about leaving his women, either. We say in Judg. 14 that he left his first wife, and earlier in Judg. 16, he leaves a prostitute he was staying with for a while. He could certainly have left Delilah if he wanted.

Maybe the answer is simply that Samson didn't know where his own strength came from. In Judg. 16:20, the text says that Samson didn't know God had left him. Maybe he thought he was just giving Delilah another lie ("sure, hon, cut my hair, and watch me slaughter your Philistine friends!"), never knowing that he was actually revealing the secret of his strength. It's a compelling explanation for people who want to believe Samson was at least trying to be cunning, instead of simply being dumb as a brick.

March 23, 2008

Breadcrumb: What kind of a riddle is that?

I mentioned in the main essay for these readings that the whole cycle of bloodshed got started when Samson asked his wedding guests a riddle. But what was this impossible riddle? It turns out, it came from events that happened earlier in the chapter. Specifically, on the way to visit his bride-to-be, Samson killed a lion barehanded. Later, he walked by the carcass to find a beehive nested in it, rich with honey. So the question Samson asked his wedding guests was, "out of the eater, something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet." (NIV) Which just goes to show that, along with a single-minded bloodlust, Samson also wasn't particularly creative. (Judg. 14:5-14)

March 22, 2008

Breadcrumb: I don't believe you

Samson's mother, much like other important women in the Bible (Sarah and Mary, to name a few), encounters an angel who announces her impending birth. The angel tells her that the child will be a Nazarite, that no one should ever cut his hair, and that the mother shouldn't consume wine, alcohol, or unclean food while pregnant. When she tells her husband, he prays that the angel will return. Which he does. The husband asks what to do in relation to the child, and the angel simply repeats everything he told the wife. You have to wonder about the trust levels in a relationship like that. You also have to wonder whether angels ever get exasperated repeating themselves all the time. (Judg. 13:2-14)

March 21, 2008

Judges 13-15: Something borrowed, something... red?

(Today's passage covers Samson's birth, his marriage, and his early conflicts against the Philistines.)

I remember stories about Samson: strong, brave, mighty. What I don't remember from the stories is that Samson was a blood-thirsty nutcase.

In Judg. 14-15, we read about Samson's early conflicts with the Philistines. A brief recap, for those who missed it:

The Philistines have conquered Israel because they were misbehaving (again). Samson, a Nazarite, decides to take a Philistine wife from Timnath, despite the protests of his parents. (Judg. 14:2-4) At the wedding, Samson poses the thirty guests a riddle, with the prize being thirty sets of clothing. He gives them one week. At the end of the week, the thirty guests still haven't figured out the solution to the riddle, so they get Samson's new wife to get it for them. (Judg. 14:11-17)

Samson accuses them of sleeping with his wife, but a deal's a deal. He goes down to Ashkelon, another Philistine city, kills thirty of them, takes their clothes, and gives it to his wedding guests. Then he leaves. (Judg. 14:18-20)

Given that Samson accused his thirty wedding guests of sleeping with his wife and left, his father-in-law gives the bride to someone else (one of the wedding guests, actually). So when Samson comes back in Judg. 15 with a nice goat for his wife, his father-in-law tells him the situation. In fairness, he offers his prettier, younger daughter to be Samson's wife, but Samson will have none of it. This is his wife, even if he doesn't like her, and he is outraged that she's been given to someone else. (Judg. 15:1-2)

In revenge, Samson gets three hundred foxes, ties brands to their tails, and lets them loose in the cornfields, vineyards, and olive orchards, effectively destroying all the Philistines' crops. (Judg. 15:3-5)

The Philistines are understandably worried. When they find out that Samson was the perpetrator, and it was because his wife was unfaithful, they took the reasonable precaution of burning the wife and father-in-law to death. (Judg. 15:6) Problem solved, right? No more adulterous wife.

No. Samson, the very same man who hated his wife, left her, and burned down cornfields for her sake, suddenly decides that maybe he wanted her around after all, and kills all the Philistines who murdered her. (Judg. 15:7)

He runs away, hides for a while, and is eventually turned over to the Philistines. Whereupon he takes a donkey's jaw-bone and kills 1,000 men with it, just for good measure. (Judg. 15:8-15)

I'm having trouble figuring out Samson's motivation here. It seems like all he wants to do is kill people. It doesn't matter what they did to him, or even if they did anything at all; he just likes bloodshed. Though we haven't read about Delilah yet, I almost wonder whether Samson had it coming.

March 18, 2008

An apology

Sorry for the unintended hiatus. Life has been unexpectedly hectic this last week, and I just haven't had time to write up the next Daily Breadcrumbs essay. I'm hoping to have things back on track by the weekend. Thanks for bearing with me.

March 13, 2008

Breadcrumb: Tongue twisters

After Jephthah defeats the Ammonites, he has to face a civil war with the Ephraimites, who are insulted that Jephthah didn't call them when he faced the oppressors. Ephraim decides to take out their aggression on Gilead, so Jephtah fights them and kills many. Ephram says that the men of Gilead are no longer welcome within its borders, so Jephtah blocks the passages across the Jordan and kills any Ephraimite who tries to cross it, to the tune of 42,000 people. (Ephraim's lands were west of the Jordan, Gilead's east.) How did Jephthah identify the Ephraimites? By making them say the word "Shibboleth," which apparently the Ephraimites couldn't pronounce properly due to local dialect. This might be the first recorded case in the Bible where people die for their accents.

March 12, 2008

Breadcrumb: We had it first!

Judges 11:13-28 gives us a dialogue about possession of the Middle East so modern in theme that might have been written in the last few years. The Ammonites have come to claim their ancestral homeland of Gilead. Jephthah counters by saying that the Israelites didn't "take" the Ammonites' land, but that God gave it to them, so it's rightly theirs. Besides, the Israelites have been living in Gilead for 300 years; why had the Ammonites waited so long? The Ammonites don't counter this, but they may very well have said that the Israelites gave up their rights to the land during their 400-year sojourn into Egypt, so it's really theirs. Change the name from "Ammonite" to "Muslim," and you could practically read this exchange in the papers.

March 11, 2008

Judges 8-9: Child Sacrifice

(Today's passage covers a few minor judges and the story of Jephthah, who defeats the Ammonites, sacrifices his own daughter, and murder 42,000 Ephraimites.)

Everyone knows the story of Abraham's "sacrifice" of Isaac. (Gen. 22) That time, God stepped in at the last minute to save Isaac, Abraham's only son by his wife Sarah. In that story, we have an example of God's mercy, his reward to a faithful parent.

Things turn out differently in Judges 11.

A bit of backstory: the Israelites have fallen to corruption (yes, again), and the Gileadites east of the Jordan have been conquered by the children of Ammon. (Judg. 10) They turn to Jephthah, the exiled son of a prostitute, and his band of adventurers (NIV, "vain men"in the KJV) to rid them of their latest oppressors. Jephthah milks this deal for all its worth, getting a promise from the Gilead elders that he will be their ruler if he rids them of the Ammonites. (Judg. 11:1-11)

Jephtah then has a long parley with the king of the Ammonites, trying to establish who has rightful claim to the land. (Judg. 11:12-28) In the end, the issue is undecided and Jephthah's forces go to war with the Ammonites.

Just before the battle, Jephtah makes his big mistake. He makes a solemn vow with God that if he defeats the Ammonites, he will sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his doors to greet him when he goes home. (Judg. 11:29-31)

I'm sure we can all see where this is going.

Jephtah conquers the 20 Ammonite cities, ousts them from Gilead, and goes home to find his daughter, his only child, coming out to greet him. (Judg. 11:32-34) Though his daughter is dancing and singing, Jephthah tears his clothes and bewails his oath. But, in the end, an oath to God is unbreakable, and he can't retract it.

Jephthah's daughter -- who remains unnamed -- understands her father's position and agrees to be a sacrifice for her father. She asks only for two months to go into the mountains and mourn, because she will die a virgin. This accomplished, she comes home and is sacrificed for God. (Judg. 11:36-39) God does not step in at the last minute to say, "Jephthah, don't do it!" as he did for Abraham. Here, the sacrifice is given and (we assume) accepted at face value.

This is especially horrid because in the Pentateuch, God expressly forbid child sacrifice. (See, for example, Lev. 18:21, Deut. 12:31, and Deut. 18:10) It may be that even though Jephthah judged Israel for six years (Judg. 12:7), even he had become corrupted by the surrounding pagan tribes. True, he had not intended to sacrifice his daughter, but when he found out it was required, he didn't shirk from his duties. This whole incident forces us to ask, "where is the God that stopped Abraham from doing this, and why didn't he stop Jephthah?"

March 10, 2008

Breadcrumb: Bible ninjas

In Judg. 9:30-38, we are in the middle of political intrigues with at least four different factions. To simplify things, Zebul, the leader of Shechem, has called Abimelech and his army to fight the usurper Gaal. Abimelech arrives by night and sets up his men in an ambush around the city, ready for an early-morning slaughter. Unfortunately, Gaal chooses this moment to go for a midnight stroll beyond the city walls and sees the massed army lying in wait. Zebul, in what might be a classic Japanese ninja movie image, looks out and says, "There's no army. That's just the shadows of the mountains." Gaal looks again, "No, no... those are definitely men." So Abimelech's men rise up and oust his Gaal's army. Which just goes to show that we should always listen to the wise ninja masters.

March 09, 2008

Breadcrumb: Never send a boy to do a man's job

When Gideon finally has the Midianite kings, Zebah and Zalmunna, in his grasp, he declares he's going to kill them for murdering his brothers. However, in a fit of delegation, he commands his eldest son, Jether, to do it for him instead. Jether, being pretty young and not used to all this drop-of-the-hat killing, hesitates. Zebah and Zalmunna taunt Gideon for not doing the deed himself, which was obviously the wrong tactic, because Gideon gets up and kills them. To add insult to injury, he also takes their camels' jewellery, presumably to put on his own camels. No doubt Gideon also gave Jether a long talking-to when they got home. (Judg. 8:18-21)

March 08, 2008

Judges 8-9: Like father, like son

(Today's passage covers Gideon's interactions with some unhelpful Israelite cities, and his son Abimelech's intrigues with Gaal and the rulers of Shechem.)

While last essay we read about Gideon as a conquering hero, Judges 8 shows us his dark side. Gideon follows the fleeing Midian army across the Jordan and asks the cities of Succoth and Penuel for food to feed his 300 soldiers. They refuse, giving the weak excuse that Gideon hasn't yet captured the Midianite kings, Zebah and Zalmunna. (Judg. 8:1-9)

As the chapter progresses, Gideon captures the kings and kills their armies. Then he remembers Succoth and Penuel and decides its time to repay them for their lack of hospitality. (Judg. 8:10-12) First, he goes to Succoth and whips her leaders with thorns and brambles, as a way of "teaching" them. Then he goes to Penuel and kills everyone. (Judg. 8:13-17) It might not seem like the punishment fitting the crime, but you can be certain that the men of Succoth will never been foolish enough to refuse food to a conquering army again. And the men of Penuel, well, they won't be doing much of anything.

Gideon eventually has 70 sons, dies, and the land has peace for 40 years. (Judg. 8:28-35) And then, as we all expected, Israel falls back into corruption.

In yet another case of Biblical succession battles, we now turn our eyes on Abimelech, Gideon's son by one of his concubines. Following in his father's footsteps of brutality, he convinces the men of Shechem -- his mother's home-town -- to give him money to buy a mercenary army and wipe out his 70 half-brothers. (Judg. 9:1-6) He's thorough, but not thorough enough, because his youngest half-brother, Jotham, plants the seeds of dissension in the rulers of Shechem before running for cover. (Judge. 9:7-20)

The rest of the chapter is a long and complicated plot of intrigues between Abimelech, the leaders of Shechem, and a man named Gaal, a newcomer who wants to oust Abimelech as Shechem's king and take control for himself. It culminates with Abimelech routing Gaal's army and following it up with a slaughter of the men of Schehem. In fact, Abimelech isn't content to simply kill them, but when the 1,000 men and women of Shechem flee to a temple, Abimelech and his men set it on fire and kill them all. (Judg. 9:42-49)

Figuring that one city isn't enough, Abimelech also conquers Thebez and tries his "burn the tower to the ground" trick again. This time, however, a woman drops a mill-stone on his head and cracks it open. Just before he dies, Abimelech tells his armour-bearer to kill him, so no one can say a woman finished him off. The armour-bearer runs him through, and Abimelech dies by the sword. (Judg. 9:50-55)

It seems that, like his father Gideon, Abimelech had a taste for blood but not much wisdom to temper it. We can only assume that the surviving cities in the region were happy to see them both dead, so that they could get on with their business of corruption and idol-worship... at least until the next judge.

A change in format: my astute readers will notice that today's essay is much shorter than normal. That's because I'm experimenting with the format of Daily Breadcrumbs. For the next month or so, I'm going to do 500-word essays instead of the usual thousand-word ones. The intervening "Breadcrumbs" will be short and pithy, about 100 words, like always. Let me know what you think!

March 07, 2008

Breadcrumb: When you don't have strength in numbers...

Having sent away fully 98% of his army so that he is left with only 300 soldiers, Gideon faces a much larger Midianite force. Instead of attacking head-on, which would be foolishness unless you're Shamgar and you've got an oxgoad, Gideon divides his men into three companies and surrounds the camp. At night, he has his men blow trumpets, break pots, and generally make such a huge amount of noise that the Midianites wake up in a panic and start killing each other. Gideon and his men waltz in, kill as many Midianites as they please, and rout the army. So much for outnumbering the foe. (Judg. 7:16-25)

March 06, 2008

Breadcrumb: What kind of a god are you?

As part of Gideon's initial selection process, God has him destroy his father's altar to Baal. Gideon does this by night, but his neighbours still realize it was him. They come after him with proverbial pitchforks, intending to kill him. Ironically, it is Gideon's father who rescues his son, by saying that Baal is a god and can fend for himself. (Judg. 6:25-32) Of course, Gideon survives and Baal's power against him is suspect, but this episode highlights the ancient world's belief in the practical power of their gods. The closest we get to that sentiment today is people telling their gods -- jokingly, we assume -- to strike them with lightening if they're lying.

March 05, 2008

Judges 6-7: Prove it!

Today's reading is Judges 6-7 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers Gideon's selection as God's chosen warrior; his mobilization of the northern Israelite army; and his defeat of Midian.

It happened again. The Israelites fell back into corruption and God sent a conquering army to, well, conquer them. In this case, the enemy was Midian, and they reigned over Israel for seven years. Their rule was so oppressive that the Israelites were forced to hid in caves while the Midianites destroyed all their crops and cattle. (Judg. 6:1-6)

Of course, the Israelites called to God. And, of course, God answered.

This time, God chose Gideon to lead his army. However, unlike the previous judges we've encountered, Gideon isn't so quick to accept God's word at face value.

In the initial encounter between Gideon and God's angel, Gideon is downright skeptical. In fact, we haven't seen a man this skeptical of God's message since Moses faced the burning bush. (Ex. 3-4) The exchange, from Judg. 6:11-23, goes something like this (and I paraphrase):
God: The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.
Gideon: If the Lord is with us, why did He let Midian conquer us?
God: I'm sending you to oust them. Can't you see that?
Gideon: But I'm a nobody. I'm the least son of the weakest family in Manasseh.
God: I'll be with you, and you will kill the Midianites. Don't worry.
Gideon: Wait, don't leave! Show me a sign first.
God: Fine, I'll wait.
Gideon: [runs home, slaughters a goat, bakes a cake, and brings them back to God.]
God: Put the offering on this rock.
[Gideon does so; God lights the whole thing on fire and disappears.]
Gideon: Oh no, I've seen the face of God! Now I'm going to die!]
God: (somehow reappearing) You're not going to die. Don't worry.

Admittedly, my rendition is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but through it we can see the extent of Gideon's skepticism. He asks what we might consider normal questions: "If God is with us, why did He let us get conquered?" Please note that God never actually answers the question.

Even after God's repeated reassurances, Gideon refuses to agree unless God shows him a sign. He refuses to accept God's word at face value, but only trusts in signs. To an extent, this is quite practical: the ancient Mediterranean was full of false prophets and, as Gideon mentioned, he's not a particularly likely candidate. It's possible that someone was playing a practical joke on him.

However, even after receiving this first sign, Gideon continually asks for more.

Gideon assembles a 30,000-man army from Manasseh, Asher, Zebulun, Naphtali, and the Abiezerites (in other words, the northern tribes west of the Jordan). However, before leading them into battle, he asks God for not one, but two more signs. He puts a fleece on the floor and asks that the first night the fleece be full of dew while the surrounding ground is dry, and the second night he asks for the opposite. In both cases, God delivers and Gideon is, for the moment, satisfied. (Judg. 6:36-40)

God requests that Gideon winnow down his army, lest the Israelites think that they repulsed the Midianites on their own. Gideon cuts his army to 10,000 and then finally to 300 before God is happy. On the other hand, this is the Bible, so extreme inferiority of numbers isn't a hindrance if God is on your side. (Judg. 7:1-8)

The time is ripe for attack. God gives the order to Gideon to lead his men in victory. But first, it's time for another sign! God tells Gideon that if he's afraid, he should take his servant and sneak down to the Midianite camp and listen to what they say. Gideon dutifully agrees, and hears a Midianite talking about his dream, in which a barley cake tumbled into the camp and destroyed a tent. His fellow soldier interprets this dream (for truly obscure reasons) to mean that the barley cake is in fact Gideon. Gideon hears the interpretation, breathes a sigh of relief, walks back up the hill, and routs the Midianites in a night-time sneak attack. (Judg. 7:8-21)

What strikes me about this entire story is the number of times Gideon asks for proof of God's intentions. The first time, it's understandable; one needs to know one's associates. After that first time, though, the skepticism is somewhat overbearing, especially by Biblical standards. It's a wonder that God doesn't get exasperated with Gideon and smite him just for the sake of it.

True, Gideon is perhaps more modern than Ehud or Barak, who both took their nomination as God's messenger at face value. On the other hand, his skepticism seems at odds with other Biblical values, namely unwavering faith in God. Perhaps this is just another example of the Book of Judges putting twists on previously unified themes.

March 03, 2008

Breadcrumb: I want an oxgoad

In Judg. 3:31, we read about Shamgar. He makes a huge impact for his one-verse cameo: he kills 600 Philistines with an oxgoad. What, I asked myself, is an oxgoad? Apparently an oxgoad is a long, pointed stick used to drive oxen. (A picture can be found in the Wikipedia article about it.) In other words, Shamgar speared 600 men to death. To me, that's pretty impressive, even more than Phineas spearing two people through at the same time. (Num. 25) On the other hand, perhaps a more conventional sword might be a more reliable weapon.

March 02, 2008

Breadcrumb: Foreseen it...

In the story of Deborah, Barak, Jael, and Sisera (Judg. 4), we are shown Deborah's gift for prophecy. When Barak asks her to accompany him to the front lines, Deborah agrees. But, she says, because of the way he's going about it, God will hand Captain Sisera over to a woman. At the beginning of this chapter, it seems the woman will be Deborah, since she's the only woman mentioned in the story so far. The one-verse insert about Heber (Judg. 4:11) doesn't make much sense. It's only when we realize that Sisera flees to Jael, Heber's wife, that begin to realize what Deborah meant. Indeed. Sisera was delivered, not to Barak, but to Jael, a woman.

March 01, 2008

Judges 3-5: You can always trust a dishonest man...

Today's reading is Judges 3-5 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers Othniels' fight against Mesopotamia; Ehud's cunning murder of King Eglon of Moab; Deborah and Barak's defeat of Sisera of Canaan's army; Jael's cunning murder of Sisera; and the Song of Deborah.

Today we are gifted with two wonderful short stories of deceit and cunning. In fact, it has been quite some time since we last had trickster stories. With the exception of the Gibeonite deception in Josh. 9, we haven't really had any stories of cunning since Genesis, which was full of them.

For the benefit of my readers who are not following along in the text, I will summarize these stories, because they're worth it.

Story one: Ehud and Eglon (Judg. 3:12-30)
The Israelites fell back into corruption, and God raised up Eglon, king of Moab, to conquer them and possess Jericho, making Israel a tribute nation. This situation persisted for 18 years, until God finally listened to the Israelites' cries and decided to help them. He chose Ehud, a left-handed Benjaminite judge, to bring the tribute-money to King Eglon. But along with the gifts, Ehud strapped a double-bladed dagger to his thigh under his tunic.

After Ehud presented the tribute-money to Eglon, he told the king that he had a secret message for him. The king sent away his servants, brought Ehud to a private parlour, and asked for the message. Ehud said, "I have a message from God for you," and promptly stabbed him through his very fat belly. The blade came out Eglon's back, but his stomach fat closed up over the hilt. Ehud left, locked the door behind him, and fled before anyone was the wiser.

After a short while, two of Eglon's servants came to tend to their king. Seeing the door was locked, they assumed he was "covering his feet" (KJV) or "relieving himself" (NIV). So they waited. They waited until the point of embarrassment, finally opened the door, and realized their king was dead.

Meanwhile, Ehud fled to the mountain to his waiting army, led them down the hill, killed 10,000 Moabites, and re-conquered Jericho.

The second story is just as wonderful, and even more unexpected. (Judg. 4:1-24)
After Ehud died, the Israelites fell back into corruption and were conquered by Jabin, king of the Canaanites, whose army was led by a man named Sisera. Deborah, a prophetess, was judging in Israel at the time. She called to Barak of Naphtali and told him to raise a 10,000-man army to fight Sisera at the river Kishon. He agreed, on the condition that Deborah go with him.

In short, Sisera's army, including his 900 iron chariots, was routed at Kishon. Barak's army followed and killed all of them, except for Sisera himself, who fled to the nearby tent of Jael. Jael's husband, Heber the Kenite, had good relations with Canaan, so Sisera figured he could get sanctuary with her.

Jael beckoned Sisera into her tent. He asked for water; she gave him milk. He asked that she deny he was there; she hid him. He fell asleep. And then, when Sisera was asleep, Jael took a tent-stake, crept up to the sleeping captain, and stabbed him through the temple. When Barak came seeking Sisera, Jael told him, "I will show you the man you seek," and presented Sisera's corpse. Barak went on to oust King Jabin, and the Israelites once again had peace.

One of the most interesting things about these stories isn't that Ehud and Jael were cunning, but that they were able to play so well off of their targets' base emotions. Ehud used Eglon's greed against him: he knew that Eglon would want to hear a secret message, even though he was already master of the Israelites. He also took advantage of King Eglon's obesity, knowing that the king would not be fast enough to stop the murder. It was not so much Ehud's cunning but Eglon's own faults that doomed him.

Jael's case is even more complex. She may have been playing to Sisera's lust; the text doesn't tell us precisely how she "beckoned" him into her tent, but it's certainly possible that there were overtones of sexuality. She certainly used Sisera's fear against him. Moreover, she relied on his assumption of hospitality, which was the norm in the ancient Middle East. When Sisera was awake, Jael went above and beyond the call of hospitality: she gave him milk when all he asked for was water. Because she played her role so well, Sisera never suspected anything was amiss until he woke up to find himself dead.

It seems, then, that trickery was not necessarily a negative trait in the Israelite culture. As I mentioned earlier, the book of Genesis is full of cunning: Abraham tricks kings into thinking Sarah is his sister, not his wife (Isaac does this as well with Rebekah); Jacob tricks Esau out of his birthright and his blessing; Laban tricks Jacob into marrying Leah instead of Rachel; Tamar tricks Judah into sleeping with her; and Joseph tricks his brothers when they visit him in Egypt. Now that the wars of conquest are mostly over and Israel often finds itself subject to foreign kings, they fall back on their patriarchs' characteristic trait. For the Israelites, trickery is not evil but useful, a means to an end.

Whether the rest of the Judges continue this deceitful trend remains to be seen. What's important for now is that they're using all their resources to conquer their enemies while keeping themselves alive.