Old Testament Adventures: Israel’s First Civil War

Before we jump into the next phase of the “Israel With No Judges” story, let’s say a brief word about the standard form of the stories in Judges.  It’s actually pretty simple:

  1. Israel stops worshipping God and worships Canaanite stuff instead.
  2. Israel becomes morally abominable.
  3. Israel is oppressed by enemies until they realize what they have done.
  4. Israel cries out to God for help, and He sends them a judge.

That cycle should seem pretty familiar given the stories we’ve been reading most recently.  Micah and the Levite is a classic case of the first stage, while the Levite and his concubine are a classic case of the second stage.  Whenever I go back and fill in the tales of the Judges, it’ll show up even more clearly.

But here, in Chapters 20-21, the narrator serves up a great twist on the theme, because Israel is not crushed by another tribe this time.  No, this time, they crush themselves.  It’s time for a civil war! Continue reading Old Testament Adventures: Israel’s First Civil War

Old Testament Adventures: Crime of Gibeah

In Judges 19-20 we get the next step in the Not Quite Happy Ending for Israel.  Wait, the story doesn’t end when we reach the Promised Land?  What a rip-off!

Things start out funny enough, depending on your sense of humor, with a certain anonymous Levite in the hill country of Ephraim.  Wait a minute…!

It’s tempting to connect him to Jonathan from the previous chapters, but that does not seem to make any story-telling sense here.  As the story unfolds it becomes quite difficult to make the two characters coincide.  More likely, the composition of the book is partially influenced by the similarity—two tales of degenerate Levites.  But it’s nice to know that the hill country of Ephraim is the land of plus ça change!

This Levite travels south, to Bethlehem of Judah, to acquire a concubine for himself.  All sorts of questions arise here.  As I teach my students, concubines were something between second-class wives and sex-slaves, depending on time and place.  What’s this Levite up to?  Why doesn’t his wife-wife show up in the tale?  Does he even have one?

We leave that a mystery, although I would say the story seems to run best if the Levite is young and stupid.  We’ll let him be unattached and unwise, to say the least, in the ways of women (and, er, justice).  At any rate, this Levite brings home a concubine from Bethlehem, and she promptly runs away. Continue reading Old Testament Adventures: Crime of Gibeah

Old Testament Adventures: Micah and the Levite (Judges 17-18)

After the death of Samson, Israel has no further Judge to save them for quite some time.  The remaining chapters of the book show what happens to Israel under such conditions.  Spoilers: it’s not good.  It makes for a terrific study in compounding errors, however!

We begin with humor: the story of Micah and the Levite (Judges 17-18).  This is a tough one for catching the tone, but I recommend something along the lines of “1970s British sketch comedy.”  The verse “so they came to the hill country of Ephraim, to the house of Micah” is a comedic refrain of the highest caliber—imagine a still shot of a lonely country cottage on a hilltop and then add a laugh track.  If I were a really dedicated writer I’d pin down a good example and link a YouTube video for you.  Perhaps an enterprising commenter will assist me!

Micah is a good fellow, a properly bourgeois Israelite living in the Promised Land without any sort of guidance from past luminaries such as Deborah, Joshua, or best yet, Moses.  And like any god-fearing Israelite, Micah’s scene begins with him trying to appease his angry mother.  Apparently mom had lost a large quantity of silver in the recent past and, like any god-fearing Israelite matriarch, had called down a curse upon the unknown malefactor.  The god in question of course isn’t God-god, otherwise I’d be capitalizing correctly!  No, this is a good old-fashioned Canaanite death curse courtesy of Baal. Continue reading Old Testament Adventures: Micah and the Levite (Judges 17-18)

Old Testament Intercession: Solomon

The intercessory theme of the Books of Samuel carries over into I Kings in a surprising place: Solomon and the harlot’s infant.

The famous tale of Solomon determining the identity of the baby’s true mother occurs immediately after his dream encounter with God in I Kings 3.  In the dream, reminiscent of Abraham’s dusky covenant encounter with God in Genesis 15, Solomon prays for the divine wisdom necessary to govern the people–and serve as covenant mediator–just as God would.  His actions with the two harlots are meant to demonstrate the God-like wisdom he has acquired.

The standard explanation of his plan is, I think, known to all.  Solomon puts on a show that he intends to kill the child.  The true mother reveals herself by her willingness to give up the child in order that the child might live.  Once Solomon sees this, he knows to award the child to her and to send the other harlot away empty.

I’ve always found this explanation to be a little too simple.  Continue reading Old Testament Intercession: Solomon

High Priest David: The Census

In II Samuel 24 David fires up the bureaucracy and takes a census of the people of Israel.  It’s an arduous process of over nine months having your pencil-pushers comb the land to count noses.  It’s also a high crime against God’s law that leads to the climactic moment of intercession in II Samuel.

Wait, what?  How is counting noses a crime against God?  Well, you could glance over to Chronicles, where the parallel version of the story makes Satan the instigator of the census.  There’s also the suggestive fact that only God takes a census of Israelites before this, and that His Abrahamic promise explicitly makes the Israelites “innumerable.”  There’s a strong rabbinic tradition that grows out of that line of reasoning.  And of course there is this very story, and the consequences that follow from the census here.  Remember, the Old Testament teaches by consequences.

But say you don’t remember your rabbinic traditions as well as you should.  Or, horribile scriptu, you are not up on your covenant history.  What then?  How can such a handicapped reader tell that David’s action is bad, bad, bad?

Joab, that’s how.  When David commands the census it’s his bloodthirsty, hot-headed, solve-with-violence commander-in-chief who tries to stop him.  Joab never met a problem he couldn’t solve with cunning, steely resolve, and a stab in the back.  When you order Joab to murder someone, he immediately sets about improving on your proposed method because murder ain’t for amateurs.  If Joab cautions you to think twice about something, you’re basically two steps from Sodom. Continue reading High Priest David: The Census

RSB: Dinner

Rule of St. Benedict: How Should I Eat Dinner?

One of the interesting features about St. Benedict’s Rule is how it envisions the ritual of dinner.  After prayer, the monks eat in silence while one designated brother reads aloud through the entirety (or near entirety) of the meal.  As elsewhere in the Rule, St. Benedict takes the reading of the text very seriously: not just anyone can read, but only those well-suited to the task and always on some kind of schedule so as to avoid chaos.

If we contrast this with some earlier monastic practice, it becomes the more interesting.  Earliest monks observed complete silence at table, giving the meal an unearthly quality as a time of meditation or reflection, or merely as the avoidance of garrulous distraction.

St. Benedict’s most direct influence, the Rule of the Master, goes in the opposite direction.  That rule specifies that the table reading be from the Rule of the Master itself, as a kind of training.  The training goes a step further: the abbot will put his monks to the question on what they read, like a lunch-table seminar.

St. Benedict himself insists that there be reading and that there be no distractions, but that’s it.  Most feel safe in assuming that he means reading from Scripture, but centuries of practice have broadened the standard Benedictine table-reading to be anything thoughtful or edifying.

Kardong’s commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict, to which I have finally returned after a long pause, raises an interesting question which regrettably goes unanswered: what are the merits and demerits of having the communal meal in some kind of silence?  We tend to take for granted that conversation is a natural and healthy part of the meal.  Why do all the monastic legislators seem keen to change that?  Is that such a good idea?

I have two practical interests in this regard:

  1. How should I conduct the dinner table at home with my own children?
  2. How should a Benedictine school conduct the table at lunch with students?

Continue reading RSB: Dinner


Here’s an ode to a truly excellent word in Latin: formido.

Verb, root meaning to become firm or rigid, means something like “to be paralyzed with fear” or “to dread.”

Noun form is this dread, dread of an extreme intensity, and very often associated with the fear we properly have of the divine, the transcendent, God and his angels and the demons. What we feel when Jove hurls his lightning or we climb the mountain to stand in the presence of Apollo.

But a fun twist: formido is also a hunter’s gauge or bogy set up to frighten prey, to flush it toward the hunter or the net.  And so the formido is also an object that causes formido.

You can cross up these meanings.  St. Anselm/John of Fecamp uses it to describe the service of the priesthood–a great formido!–and the fear of contaminating the sacrament of the altar.

It is of course where we get the English word formidable, but “daunting” or “imposing” is not intense enough for how the word stands in Latin.  “Utterly petrifying” is better.

How is the priesthood “utterly petrifying?”  Anselm/John has the priest trapped by a fear that either reaction is to his doom.  Dare I approach the altar of God despite being so unworthy?  Do you know what happens to those who defile the sacraments?!  But then again, do you know what happens to those who disobey the commandments of God?!  Why have I been placed in this untenable position?  What do I do?  Is my service to my destruction or my salvation?



What Ever Happened to Tamar?

I wrote this draft many months ago but wasn’t happy with how it turned out.  I left it to rot in my drafts, but a funny thing then happened.  When I started trashing drafts to clean up my work space, I remembered that I owed Mrs. Darwin a post on Tamar and that this draft, while imperfect, isn’t so terrible after all.  Many birds, one stone:

As I’ve said before, one of the strengths of the books of Samuel is the attention to character motivations and detail.  The actors on the stage are far more complex and realized than in any other books of the Old Testament.

There are strengths and weaknesses that go with this approach.  Here’s a weakness: the narrator presents characters we can invest in, only to drop them when they no longer serve the goal of the narrative.  We are left with loose ends and unanswered questions.

Personally I think this gives the books an added charm or appeal.  But it does also mean that we don’t get to find out what happens to, say, Jonadab.  Here’s an inscrutably wicked fellow whose two appearances are almost indescribably base…and then he disappears.  If anyone deserves to have something awful happen to him, it’s Jonadab.  In a novel or a movie, he would need to meet the most grisly fate minds can imagine.  But in II Samuel, poof.  Gone, just as sadly happens in real life all too often.

The character this most affects is Tamar.  Continue reading What Ever Happened to Tamar?

Translating Psalms (25)

A sixth of the way there.  If I’d started at the beginning of Lent I may have finished the whole thing.  As it is, I think it’s time for a break after this one.

“Judica me, Domine” (Psalm 25)

1 In finem. Psalmus David. Judica me, Domine, quoniam ego in innocentia mea ingressus sum, et in Domino sperans non infirmabor.

Unto the end.  A Psalm of David.  Judge me, O Lord, for I in my innocence have I entered, and hoping in the Lord I shall not be infirm.

2 Proba me, Domine, et tenta me; ure renes meos et cor meum.

Test me, O Lord, and try me; burn my kidneys and my heart.

3 Quoniam misericordia tua ante oculos meos est, et complacui in veritate tua.

For Thy mercy is before my eyes, and I have been pleased in Thy truth. Continue reading Translating Psalms (25)

Translating Psalms (24)

I’ve been using Douay-Rheims Bible Online (www.drbo.org) as my source for this little Vulgate project.  Just happened to stand at the head of Google’s list of a “psalms vulgate” search.  When you need a quick Septuagint check, just head over to www.newadvent.org

“Ad te, Domine, levavi” (Psalm 24)

[1] In finem. Psalmus David. Ad te, Domine, levavi animam meam.

Unto the end.  A Psalm of David.  To You, O Lord, I have lifted up my soul.

[2] Deus meus, in te confido; non erubescam.

My God, in You I trust; may I not be put to shame.

[3] Neque irrideant me inimici mei : etenim universi, qui sustinent te, non confundentur.

Nor may my enemies ridicule me: for indeed all who rely on You shall not be confounded.

[4] Confundantur omnes iniqua agentes supervacue. Vias tuas, Domine, demonstra mihi, et semitas tuas edoce me.

Let them be confounded, all those doing iniquities pointlessly.  Thy ways, O Lord, show to me, and Thy paths teach me. Continue reading Translating Psalms (24)