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Reading the Bible as Literature (5)

This is the fifth and final installment in our series on reading the Bible as literature. We first considered what a literary approach looks like and provided a few examples. We then answered some possible objections regarding the inspiration and historicity of Scripture before proceeding positively to look at its benefits. In this article we will consider three examples from 1 Samuel in which a literary approach may fine-tune or even change our understanding of a particular story.

A literary approach, on the one hand, will often support our traditional understanding of Scripture and defend it against the various charges of critical scholars. But, on the other hand, it may occasionally change or correct our understanding of a given text. Now if we are serious about the Word of God being our highest authority and about the need for ongoing reformation, we should be open to this. Not in a gullible or fickle way—we should certainly not leave the traditional doctrine because one or two scholars present a novel idea—but we ought to weigh whatever arguments are brought from the text itself. The following three examples from 1 Samuel should, therefore, not be taken as proposals for a radical break with the past; rather, they are challenging observations and interesting suggestions, even food for thought, for those who love digging deeper into the biblical stories.

Example 1: 1 Samuel 10:7-8 (Saul’s delay)

After Samuel anoints Saul, he gives the new king instructions: “Go down before me to Gilgal, and I will be coming down…” However, it takes months, if not years, before this actually happens. Not surprisingly, many critical scholars explain this inconsistency by assuming that the book of Samuel was patched together from different sources. But if we read carefully, we can make sense of the delay; in fact, it appears to be a deliberate choice of the author or editor of the book. Note that in 10:7 Samuel said to Saul, “Do what your hand finds to do, for God is with you.” V. Philips Long[1] suggests that this is a specific instruction. Consider Saul’s mission in 10:1: “You will save [Israel] from the hand of their surrounding enemies”—that is, the Philistines (cp. 9:16). And consider the sign announced in 10:5: “You shall come to Gibeath-Elohim, where there is a garrison of the Philistines.” In light of these verses, “do what your hand finds to do” is really a call to attack the Philistine garrison. Had Saul done this, he would have established himself as the king of Israel immediately. But instead Saul goes back to his farm, and his halfhearted action makes it much harder for him to establish himself as a leader in Israel. This explains the delay in chapters 11-12. It also characterizes Saul as a failure from the very beginning, in keeping with the rest of 1 Samuel. Moreover, this understanding sheds an interesting light on 1 Sam. 13:3, where Jonathan, son of Saul, is introduced. Jonathan’s very first action is to defeat the Philistine garrison at Geba,[2] and this finally causes Saul to spring into action. Jonathan is the obedient king his father failed to be.

Example 2: 1 Samuel 15:29 (Does God have regrets?)

Saul messed up thoroughly and asks Samuel for forgiveness and restoration. Samuel gives two answers. First, the kingdom is given to another (as readers we already know this from the previous chapter). Second, “the Glory of Israel […] is not a man, that he should have regret” (15:29). There is a well-known apparent conflict between this statement and verses 11 and 35, which state that God regretted making Saul king. Typically we explain this by distinguishing different kinds of regret. But does this do justice to the text? Jan Fokkelman suggests a different understanding: what Samuel said in 15:29 was not the word of the Lord, and is in fact wrong theology.[3] We must realize that the recorded speech of a character in a story is not always true. This does not undermine the truthfulness of the account, nor the infallibility of the Scriptures. The Bible often does this as it records for us the lies or half-truths that people speak, whether deliberately or unknowingly. This only goes to prove, as Paul says in Rom. 3:4, “Let God be true though every one were a liar.” Throughout the Biblical narrative we are encouraged to test every human word against the truth God has revealed. Now back to Samuel. Note that the Lord told Samuel that he regretted making Saul king (v. 11), but Samuel tells Saul that God has no regrets (v. 29). Normally a prophet will speak the words of God, but was Samuel faithful here? We know that Samuel was “angry” when he received the word of God. Was that because he was sad about Saul’s failure, or because he could not live with the idea of a God with regrets? As readers we ask these questions, but the narrator does not leave us in the dark. At the very end of the story he resolves the difficulty by affirming that the Lord did in fact regret making Saul king (v. 35). Samuel’s theology of a God-without-regrets may sound proper, but Samuel was wrong.

Example 3: 1 Samuel 17 (David and Goliath)

Another suggestion from Jan Fokkelman is that David hit Goliath not on his forehead, but between the segments of his armor at the knee joint.[4] The Hebrew word for “forehead” (mêtsah) is also used of the shin piece of body armor. It has that meaning in 1 Sam. 17:6. It is therefore not farfetched to suppose that the same word in 17:49 also refers to this piece of armor. The puzzling statement that the “stone sank into his mêtsah” now makes more sense: it lodges in the armor joint and locks it. Goliath fell forward, not because of an injury, but because his armor no longer allowed him to move. Goliath lies on the ground immobilized, not because he is dead (see v. 41), but because he cannot stand up! Why would this matter? Note that the weaponry and armor is a key motif of the entire chapter. Goliath’s armor is described in much detail in vv. 5-7. Saul tries to put his armor on David in vv. 38-39. Goliath and David both comment on the weapons of their opponents: “sticks” against “sword and spear and javelin” (vv. 43-47). David explicitly states that he intends to prove that “the Lord saves not with sword and spear.” What David proves is not that the Lord saves with slings and stones, but that with God’s help the very armor of the champion can be turned against him. David is victorious even though he wears no armor; Goliath’s downfall (literally!) is his reliance on his armor.

Conclusion

In this article I have presented some examples of reading the Bible as literature. I have shown that by taking its starting point in the text of Scripture, this method can help us to better appreciate the biblical text. It works out in detail what Reformed people have always wanted in principle: the use of Scripture to interpret Scripture.

Now a literary approach is no magic wand. We cannot always expect new, meaningful insights to arise from the text and, as with other methods of Bible study, it may leave us with more questions than answers. But it does invite us to delve deeply in the rich text of Scripture where we can prayerfully meditate on it day and night.

There is, however, one vital conviction that the literary method cannot bring to bear on the text on its own, namely, the conviction that all that is written speaks of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Even if no literary method can locate Christ in the text in the Old Testament, we recognize that he is there at work in the shadows. Let us then use all of the available tools at our disposal to bring out old and new treasures from Scripture, viewing it all in the light of the saving power and grace of the one mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ, the Word himself.


[1] This explanation comes from V. Philip Long, The Art of Biblical History, p. 216ff.

[2] Could “Geba” be an alternate spelling of “Gibea(th-Elohim)”? This is supported by 1 Sam. 13:15-16.

[3] Jan Fokkelman, Reading Biblical Narrative, p. 60.

[4] Ibid., p. 32.

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