We’re working our way through the family legends of Genesis, Torah, and the prophets at my church this summer. I’m calling the sermon series “Family Values,” which is decidedly tongue in cheek, given that we’re talking about sisters competing in a birth-off, a dad consenting to sacrificing his favorite son, a woman who insists that her slave woman is “part of the family,” and dudes who sell their annoying little brother into slavery.
This week, we made it all the way to Samuel. You remember Samuel, right? His mom, Hannah, had a snotty sister wife who kept having baby after baby and then throwing it in Hannah’s barren face. Hannah had a total meltdown at one annual family visit to the temple and swore to God that if he gave her a son, she would give him right back and dedicate him to work in the temple.
God “remembered” Hannah (which is what the old dudes who wrote these legends down keep saying about women who find themselves somewhat unexpectedly and belatedly pregnant – as if God had totally forgotten them since they hadn’t done their single female task and borne any offspring yet…) and she had a son. She named him Samuel, which means “I asked the Lord for him.” I’m pretty sure that was Hannah’s way of getting back at the old scribes’ misogyny, reminding them that God hadn’t forgotten her and suddenly remembered, but that they’d been in cahoots the whole time.
Samuel grew up in the temple, dedicated to the priest named Eli and the work of God’s house. You probably remember the story of how God called Samuel in the night, but Samuel – new at this whole temple thing and living in an era when God didn’t really speak to humans this way with much frequency – kept thinking it was Eli. When the two of them finally figure out that God is trying to talk to Samuel, God tells him all kinds of horrible things about how Eli’s sons have been horrid scoundrels, stealing from the people and from the Lord, and how God just can’t let that go on much longer.
The prophecies come true. The Israelites get into a skirmish with the Philistines. When they lose the first battle, they decide that they need something to strengthen morale and raise their spirits. They decide to go drag the Ark of the Covenant – the dwelling place of the Lord that was usually kept in the holiest of holy places inside the temple – down to the battlefield.
Of course they’d need someone to accompany the Ark, so they enlist Eli’s scoundrel sons to guard it down on the battlefield. The plan does not go well. The Philistines capture the Ark and, in the process, kill both of Eli’s sons. When Eli hears the news, he falls out of his chair, hits his head on the ground and dies instantly.
So, the temple is effectively inoperable: no priest, no Ark, no worship.
The Philistines, meanwhile, have difficulty storing the dwelling place of the Most High God. Everywhere they try to stash it – one city after another – tragedy befalls them. People get sick. Depending on how you translate a single Hebrew word, the plague that follows the Ark through the Philistine territory is either Bubonic plague, tumors, or…hemorrhoids.
Yep. The Lord of Hosts inflicts the Israelites’ enemies with hemorrhoids.
It turns out to be an effective defense. After moving the Ark around several times, the Philistines give up and decide that they’ll just have to return it to the Israelites and their temple. But they can’t just return it without an explanation or an apology. They decide that they need to return the Ark accompanied by some gifts. They call together a council to decide what the appropriate gift is for stealing another tribe’s sacred divine dwelling place, and they settle on five golden rats and five golden…hemorrhoids.
The Philistines bring the Ark back to the Israelites along with their apology gifts. When they return to the temple, who is there to accept the gift?
You got it: Samuel. The last of the Judges; first of the prophets.
At Peace Covenant, we share in the interpretation of the text. So at the end of this story, I asked: what do we learn about God from this story? And what do we learn about ourselves?
A friend on Facebook said that her interpretation of the story is that God does not need us to defend him – that he is totally capable of taking care of his own business (hemorrhoids, tumors, etc.).
One church member said “the main point is that messing with God is a pain in the butt.”
And several others said that this seemed to be a story about justice: that God does not care for lying, cheating, wicked scoundrels in charge of his people and that God will make things right in the end.
It is interesting that Eli’s sons – the ones who were inheriting the power and privilege of temple leadership – were killed, while the Philistines – outsiders who stole the precious center of worship – got what was coming to them in the form of a very uncomfortable bodily malady.
That makes it seem to me that God cares a lot more about the integrity of the leaders he calls to care for his people than she does about the integrity of some outside group that is clearly aiming at enemy status.
Which makes me wonder if we are spending too much of our discipleship energy worrying about the evil Philistines, and too little of it paying attention to who our own leaders are and whether or not they are acting with integrity.
But what do YOU think?