Christian readers may be wondering: Why is he skipping the book of Ruth? I'm not! The Jewish and Christian Bibles briefly diverge at the end of Judges. Christians read Ruth, while Jews jump directly from Judges to Samuel and return to Ruth much later. So, I should get to Ruth in, oh, January.
No wonder priests, ministers, and rabbis have spent so much of the last 3,500 years discouraging regular folks from reading the Bible on their own: It makes clerics look like sleazeballs—venal, greedy, smug, and unholy. As we saw back in Exodus, the priestly caste got off to a very bad start. The first priest was Aaron, the Fredo Corleone of the Sinai. Then Aaron's two sons dissed God so badly that He smote them. The Israelite clergy didn't much improve after that. Here at the beginning of 1 Samuel—"First Samuel," as it's spoken—we meet Eli, Israel's top priest, who gives his profession another black eye. Sitting in the temple one day, he observes the visibly distressed Hannah praying that the Lord give her a son, because she's barren. Eli sees her lips moving, but can't hear her speaking. Does he ask her what's wrong? Offer succor and counsel? Uh, no. He accosts Hannah angrily and says, "How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine." What a welcoming man of God!
Hannah, rather then telling Eli to stick it you-know-where, apologetically insists that she's not drunk, but "pouring out my soul before the Lord." (What a glorious phrase! —a perfect description of deep prayer.) Eli tells her God will grant her prayer for a son, and He does. She gives birth to Samuel and vows he will be, like Samson, a nondrinking, nonhaircutting "nazarite." Hannah takes her devotion a step further: She actually gives Samuel to God, dropping him off at the temple as soon as he's weaned. (This seems a little harsh on both mom and baby, if you ask me. But I'm one of those indulgent, mollycoddling parents.)
Hannah then sings a lovely praise-poem to the Lord. (A small taste: "He raises up the poor from the dust; He lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord's, and on them He has set the world.") Here's a question: There are few women in the Bible, yet they sing many, even most, of the book's great songs (Miriam's celebration after the Red Sea crossing, the song of Deborah, Hannah's hymn here). Why would songs and poetry belong to women? And, as a political matter, how did women, whose public lives were so limited in Israelite tribal culture, claim public roles as singers and poets?
Back to the priests, who are getting even worse. Eli and his sons, who are his deputy priests, bring up Samuel. But the sons are "scoundrels." They steal the animal sacrifices, scarfing down the burnt offering themselves. They bully temple-goers and even sexually harass and seduce the temple's girl-assistants. (A Mark Foley-type situation.) Eli, a feckless father, weakly chastises his sons, but doesn't stop their misbehavior. An angel tells Eli that his family will be tossed out of the priesthood; his sons will die on the same day; and a faithful new priest—Samuel, we realize—will take their place.
And, lo, it comes to pass. God begins talking to Samuel. (This is a very sitcom-style incident, because the first three times the Lord calls him, Samuel assumes it is Eli summoning him. Eventually Eli realizes that Samuel is actually hearing God's voice and tells his protégé to listen up.) God and Samuel start talking regularly, and Samuel soon becomes Israel's top prophet.
Raiders of the Lost Ark, the prequel! The Philistines rout the Israelite army, so the Israelites dispatch the ark of the covenant to the battlefield in hopes of harnessing its power for victory. A curious thing occurs: The ark fails the Israelites! (This contradicts everything Steven Spielberg taught me about the ark's absolute power. What kind of world do we live in that you can't even trust Spielberg anymore!) The Philistines, initially terrified of the ark, steel themselves against it. They're much more courageous than the quivering Israelites. They slaughter the Israelites, capture the ark, and kill both of Eli's sons, who were guarding it. (Clearly, the author does not believe the ark has failed; rather, the Israelites lost because they were faithless.) When Eli hears of his son's deaths, he falls backward out of his chair, breaks his neck, and dies. Then Eli's pregnant daughter-in-law hears of her husband's death while she's in labor and dies herself, but not before giving birth to a son named Ichabod, which means, "The glory has departed from Israel." Now that's a name with bad karma.
OK, back to Raiders. The jubilant Philistines bring the captured ark to the temple of their god Dagon. In the morning they find the statue of Dagon face down before the ark. They remount Dagon, but the next morning they find him on the ground again, this time with his head and arms chopped off. And that mighty ark is just getting started harassing the Philistines. It then inflicts hemorrhoids—what's with all the Biblical hemorrhoids?—on the people of Ashdod. (So, Spielberg was also wrong about the ark causing your face to melt. It works its magic on your other end!) The Phils move the ark to Gath, and sure enough, the Gathites are soon itching hemorrhoids, too. Then the ark goes to Ekron, and, yup, it's Preparation H time there as well. (The "H" stands for "Holy.") With Ekronites dying, the Philistines are desperate to return the ark. Their priests advise sending it back with a "guilt offering" to appease God. What's the gift they come up with? Five gold mice and five gold hemorrhoids! What would a gold hemorrhoid even look like? One shudders to think! (According to a quick Google search, scholars debate whether the ark caused "hemorrhoids" or "tumors." Let's face it, hemorrhoids make it a much better story.)
Samuel leads a great religious revival in Israel, persuading his people to cast off their Baal idols and return to the Lord. The result is earthly reward, too: renewed conquest of the Philistines. There's a profound difference between Samuel and the judges in Judges. The judges fought battles and threw off enemy tyrants, but rarely exhorted the Israelites to love and fear God. As a result, their success was very temporary. But Samuel conditions worldly success on faith. The Israelites only thrive insofar as they obey God, and he never stops haranguing them about it. Samuel, unlike the judges, actually does judge his people.
Yet more bad men of the cloth: Samuel's sons follow him into family business, but they "took bribes and perverted justice." Again the Bible reminds us of the evils of inherited power. The Lord ordained the priesthood as an inherited profession, but that was clearly an error. Every priest with a decent reputation has wretched sons—Aaron, Eli, and now Samuel. The Bible is a refreshingly meritocratic: Again and again it measures the worth of men by their deeds and not their bloodlines. Except for the original patriarchs, none of the great Jewish Bible stars has gotten a leg up through nepotism. Moses is the child of nobodies. Joshua is related to no one. Gideon is the youngest son in the weakest clan of the feeblest tribe. Samson came from nothing—Samuel, too. They are all self-made men. I suspect this is one reason why Americans read the Bible more enthusiastically than, say, Europeans. We are a deeply meritocratic people, and the Bible affirms that equal opportunity is God's plan, too.
Even so, the Israelites still want a king. Sick of war and fearful that Samuel's corrupt sons will succeed him, the Israelites beseech the aging Samuel to appoint a king to govern them. Samuel bristles and gives a brilliant, moving sermon against monarchy: "These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: He will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots. ... [H]e will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of 50s, and some to plow his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers," etc.
It's totally convincing, yet "the people refused to listen" and demand a king anyway. The Lord tells Samuel: Go ahead, give them their king.
Really, can you blame them for wanting a monarch? We just finished a book, Judges, which is all about what happens when there is no leader—mass murder, gang rape, anarchy, and so forth. The Israelites had lived through that nightmare. Samuel's warnings against kingship ring hollow by comparison. Kings are corrupt and brutal, but are the Israelites so stupid for choosing monarchy over anarchy? I would do the same. (There's an Iraq analogy here, for those who want to pursue it. But that's not my department.)