First, here is my podcast for this lesson.
Now, as we move into books like Samuel and Kings that are more historical in nature, we need to discuss just what that means. How should we read and understand these? A few thoughts, just the very tips of several icebergs.
- We know how Israelites used sources and how they wrote, because we have two different versions of the same events, told different ways. (This is like the four Gospels.) Chronicles begins with Adam, runs through 9 chapters of genealogies, and then retells the stories of David, Saul, Solomon, etc., often in very different ways, with different, even contradictory details. (See Peter Enns on Samuel vs. Chronicles, part 1, part 2.) Enns spends a good bit of time on this issue in his book Incarnation and Inspiration: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament which I wish more Mormons would read.
To insist that, somehow, Samuel-Kings and Chronicles must say the same thing about the same event tells us more about the modern interpreter than it does about the biblical texts. Moreover, it flies in the face of both the evidence and common sense. The plain fact of the matter is that in Scripture we have two divergent accounts of the same event. The only question before us is how to handle this fact with integrity. (Inspiration, 65.)
Notably, the lesson manual will have us flip back and forth between Chronicles and Samuel/Kings, whichever it prefers.
- “History” as most people understand the concept is actually a very modern thing. Does it apply to the Bible?
History to most modern Westerners is what happened in the past, and as a genre of literature it is an account of what happened in the past. We judge written history by how accurately and objectively it recounts past events. In other words, we tend to apply to history the same standards that we apply to journalism….We assume that ancient historians, and the biblical writers in particular, had the same definition of history. This assumption has been and continues to be the source of problems…. to attempt to read the account of Israel’s history in the Bible strictly as a record of actual events is to misconstrue its genre and force it to do something it was never meant to do.- How to Read the Bible, McKenzie, 25,30.
- Just to underscore how far removed we are from Israelite conceptions about history, we should point out that even in Joseph Smith’s much more recent day, standards and understandings of history writing still differed sharply from modern assumptions. For example, Joseph Smith’s journal is only in his handwriting until about 1839. After that, in keeping with then-current practice, editors took passages from other peoples’ writings, accounts, or journals, expanded them, and put them into 1st person, in Joseph Smith’s mouth, in his journal and history. Consequently, when you read something from 1840 that seems to be a direct quote from Joseph Smith … it’s actually the words of someone else, expanded, and attributed to Joseph. (
This is why you should read The Words of Joseph Smith (PDF), instead of much more common Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, first published in 1938 and drawing heavily on the History of the Church.The best source now is the Joseph Smith Papers project.) As it turns out, the vast majority of recorded conversations in the scriptures are probably more like that, reconstructed instead of word-for-word quotes. See my old post here.
- So were the Israelites writing “history”?
the biblical writers were not concerned with the objective recording of details or even with the processes of historical change, as a modern historian would be. The biblical writers were not consciously engaged in what we would consider history writing, or historiography. Their concern was with the didactic use of selected historical traditions for a theological purpose. -Nahum Sarna, “Israel in Egypt” in Ancient Israel, ed. Hershel Shanks.
Sarna was both a Rabbi and a PhD in Semitics, author of the Genesis and Exodus volumes of the JPS Torah Commentary series I frequently cite, and a wise man.
Historiography is not the mere statement of facts, but the shaping of those facts for a particular purpose. To put it another way, historiography is an attempt to relay to someone the significance of history…. That Gandhi lived and fought for the independence of India from England is true, factual, free from error, historical, but that does not make it historiography. The 1982 movie about Gandhi starring Ben Kingsley, however, is most certainly historiography. What makes it so? It is a sustained attempt to capture the life of Gandhi in a particular way to persuade us of the importance and significance of Gandhi’s life.” Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation– 60
These stories in the Bible are deliberately arranged, shaped, details chosen or left out, with very particular goals in mind. This is one reason why it’s more useful to ask of Bible stories, “why is the story being told this way” instead of “why did it happen this way.”
What the Bible offers us is an uneven continuum and a constant interweaving of factual historical detail (especially, but by no means exclusively, for the later periods) with purely legendary ‘history’; occasional enigmatic vestiges of mythological lore; etiological stories; archetypal fictions of the founding fathers of the nation; folktales of heroes and wonder-working men of God; verisimilar inventions of wholly fictional personages attached to the progress of national history; and fictionalized versions of known historical figures. All of these narratives are presented as history, that is, as things that really happened and that have some significant consequence for human or Israelite destiny. The only evident exceptions to this rule are Job, which in its very stylization seems manifestly a philosophic fable (hence the rabbinic dictum ‘There was no such creature as Job; he is a parable’) and Jonah, which, with its satiric and fantastic exaggerations, looks like a parabolic illustration of the prophetic calling and God’s universality.
Nevertheless, these stories are not, strictly speaking, historiography, but rather the imaginative reenactment of history by a gifted writer who organizes his materials along certain thematic biases and according to his own remarkable intuition of the psychology of the characters. He feels entirely free, one should remember, to invent interior monologue for his characters; to ascribe feeling, intention, or motive to them when he chooses; to supply verbatim dialogue (and he is one of literature’s masters of dialogue) for occasions when no one but the actors themselves could have had knowledge of exactly what was said. The author of the David stories stands in basically the same relation to Israelite history as Shakespeare stands to English history in his history plays. Shakespeare was obviously not free to have Henry V lose the battle of Agincourt, or to allow someone else to lead the English forces there, but, working from the hints of historical tradition, he could invent a kind of Bildungsroman for the young Prince Hal; surround him with invented characters that would serve as foils, mirrors, obstacles, aids in his development; create a language and a psychology for the king which are the writer’s own achievement, making out of the stuff of history a powerful projection of human possibility. That is essentially what the author of the David cycle does for David, Saul, Abner, Joab, Jonathon, Absalom, Michal, Abigail, and a host of other characters.
– Robert Alter, Art of Biblical Narrative, 33.
I love Alter’s statement- “[H]istory is far more intimately related to fiction than we have been accustomed to assume.”
Let me plug Alter one more time, specifically on 1-2 Samuel. His introduction, translation, and literary commentary is great. See The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel
With that behind us, what of these chapters? Samuel himself is a hugely pivotal figure. As a judge, he is the last real one. As a prophet, he installs Saul as the first king. Samuel also appears to be a priest, and perhaps (assuming he replaces Eli), the high priest. This last is all the more unusual because Samuel is explicitly an Ephraimite (1Sa 1:1, but not in the KJV), not a descendent of Aaron or Levi. Now, when I teach these chapters in Institute, I take this and two other examples to illustrate a point. Everyone knows that in order to be a priest in the Bible, you have to be a descendant of Levi. It’s their tribe, it’s a thing. So when we meet this central figure who does priestly things, but is clearly not an Levite… what do we do?
We reexamine our assumptions, that’s what.
I make a chart on the board, with “The Rule” as the title of the left column, and the center column is labeled “WTH?” We all go along assuming some things are rigidly fixed and virtually eternal, The Rule, but then don’t know what to do when we encounter something that clearly violates that, hence the category label, WTH? Samuel the non-Levite priest is our WTH here. (I think the other examples I use are David the Moabite descendent becoming king of Israel even though Deuteronomy forbids Moabite descendants from entering (Deu 23:4 vs. Ruth 4:17-23), and Samuel sacrificing at the high places, even though Deuteronomy forbids it (Deu 12:2 vs. 1 Sa 9). There are lots more.)
So what are our options when we encounter a WTH? We have several.
- The Ostrich Approach, namely, “there is no problem.” These aren’t the droids you’re looking for. Everything is always entirely consistent. Ignore it. Focus on something else.
- Abandon Faith- If our faith is rigid/fragile enough, or we elevate our assumptions to absolute necessities, out goes faith and commitment. “Since I know my assumptions must be true, clearly I must now reject this as false.” This is about paradigm management, and how we integrate new and reliable information.
- Harmonize/Fudge the Issue– Chronicles recognized that Samuel’s genealogy was a problem, and “fixes” his genealogy accordingly to make him a Levite. (See 1Chr 6:7-13). But Chronicles was hundreds of years later! How do they know his genealogy? Well, they worked backwards. Since you have to be a descendent of Aaron to be a priest, and everyone knows it, and that’s the way it’s always been, then Samuel MUST have been a Levite, regardless of whatever 1Sa actually says. This is an example of “presentism,” extrapolating backwards from current assumptions and the status quo, and it’s a big problem for LDS. More on this in a minute.
- Dig into the scholarship- I’m a big fan of asking questions and seeking answers. Scholarship often answers many questions while raising others. There’s a little bit of a tradeoff. In two of these three cases, something’s happening in clear violation of Deuteronomy, without any seeming awareness of Deuteronomy or divine punishment. The scholarly answer here is that Deuteronomy was largely unknown or didn’t exist until after Samuel. That solves these problems, but creates others. In the case of Samuel’s genealogy, here’s what the venerable Anchor Bible Dictionary says (some references removed for ease of reading.)
The first block of material relating to Samuel (1 Samuel 1–3) portrays him as an aspiring priest (note 1 Chronicles 6 connects his lineage with Levi; 1 Samuel 1 with Ephraim), serving under Eli at the sanctuary of Shiloh. Later passages in 1 Samuel report his performing sacrificial functions often associated with priests (7:9; 9:13; 10:8; 16:1–5)…. Samuel’s associations with the priesthood have been widely questioned. The biblical text never applies the label “priest” to Samuel. At the time of Samuel, the offering of sacrifices did not require that one be a priest… It is quite conceivable that, at a time when levitic ancestry was not a prerequisite for priestly service, Samuel was apprenticing for the priesthood, but the calling of the Lord turned him to other forms of ministry. Later Israelites, assuming a priestly role for Samuel, assigned to him a levitic ancestry (1 Chr 6:7–13; contrast the lineage in 1 Sam 1:1).- ABD, “Samuel (Person)”
Where does that get us? Apparently at this time, Levite ancestry was not required for priesthood, so Samuel’s Ephraimite heritage is irrelevant. He was an apprentice of sorts. But later on, Levite ancestry did become required, so Chronicles “fixes” his genealogy. Now, there’s a good scholarly answer, which (as usual) complicates something we thought was fairly cut-and-dried.
On the other hand, think of Lehi. He wasn’t a Levite, but offers sacrifice. Does that support this idea about the changing requirements of lineage? Scholarship is a double-edged sword. It giveth and it taketh away, often at the same time.
- Recognize anomalies- It may be that something is some kind of eternal principle, but wasn’t revealed, or recognized, or implemented consistently.
- Reexamine our assumptions- What we had assumed was an absolute turned out not to be. Perhaps we should be careful about what we assume? Maybe we don’t know as much as we think we do. How much of our other common “knowledge” is really just strong assumption and tradition?
And then I transition into the more prescriptive part of my Institute lesson where I give some LDS examples. I’ll include a few of many possible here.
- Is the way we perform ordinances today eternal? Have they always been done this way and must be? Someone as dogmatic as Joseph Fielding Smith didn’t think so, at least in the case of the Gift of the Holy Ghost.
“the Lord gave the commandment to Joseph Smith that those who are baptized for the remission of sins shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands, and this is the practice in the Church. This does not prove, however, that the gift of the Holy Ghost may not be received without the laying on of the hands, although we assume that this was the general custom of the Church in ancient days….We discover in the reading of the scriptures that the Lord conferred authority on some of his chosen servants and gave them exceptional powers without the laying on of hands, but merely by his spoken edict. In this manner Elijah obtained the keys of power in the priesthood to raise the dead, heal the sick, close the heavens that it did not rain only by his word, and for more than three years there was no rain, and moreover he had the power to call down fire from heaven to destroy the enemies of the Church….We may correctly believe that the Lord may bestow the gift of the Holy Ghost by other means than by the laying on of hands if occasion requires it. While it is the practice to lay on hands, there are many incidents recorded in the scriptures where divine authority has been bestowed by the divine edict to the prophets.” – Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, vol. 4, p. 93 My italics.
- Passing the sacrament is not a priesthood duty and requires no priesthood per se. Sure, the deacons do it today, but only because it has been assigned to them to do so. It’s been done quite differently in the past. See “From Men to Boys” in the Journal of Mormon History by William Hartley, who worked for the Church and at BYU. Link.
- Many people make assumptions about the way the Word of Wisdom was understood and followed and are shocked or scandalized when those presentist assumptions turn out to be wrong. I highly recommend (more formally) the relevant section in BYU History prof. Thomas Alexander’s Mormonism in Transition: A History of the LDS Church from 1890-1930. Or, from a different angle, Mike Ash’s paper on the topic.
- In the early/mid 1900’s, discussion about the origins of the priesthood ban tended to discount early evidence that Joseph Smith ordained black men to the priesthood, often on the basis of presentism, assuming that the way things are now is the way they must have been, and therefore they must have been by revelation at the beginning, and therefore, any evidence to the contrary is historical misunderstanding. (There are other reasons as well, but presentism is one of them.) See the lds.org statement on Race and the Priesthood.
Suggested reading on this topic-
Dil Parkinson (BYU Arabic prof), Line upon line.
Craig Harline (BYU History Prof), fun lecture on how things change.
James B. Allen “Line upon line” Ensign, 1979.
The short version: Making assumptions gets us into trouble. If we are too rigid about those assumptions, we’re liable to lose our faith when reality proves different than we’ve assumed. In a Church based on line-upon-line and continuing revelation, change is the rule, not the exception. Consequently, assumptions extrapolating the present situation into the eternal past and eternal future are likely to be inaccurate.
Back into Samuel.
Eli is great for talking about dealing with our own humanity and the humanity of Church leaders. How so?
First, he makes assumptions about Hannah. (Assumptions again!) He sees her praying silently, but moving her lips and assumes she’s drunk. No one likes people making assumptions about us, but Hannah corrects him. Now, why might he have assumed that? Prayer was verbal. So was reading. (In fact, the Hebrew verb “to read” means “to call out.”) Later on in history, being able to read silently was somewhat of an intellectual achievement. (See here.) In the next chapters, we see how Eli’s sons violate the sanctity of the temple, abuse their positions of power, and commit moral and ritual transgression. Eli does not rebuke them sufficiently. (God eventually handles this himself, apparently, or at least, that’s how it appeared to the storyteller when they died at the same time, and news of their death caused Eli’s death.)
So we have Eli, who isn’t abusive, but makes assumptions, and doesn’t govern his house or position as he should. Then we have his sons, who go one step further into active abuse for their own profit and pleasure. (Note that all priests were dependent upon the people for their food; his sons have decided to take the best parts, generally reserved for God, and then sleep with the women at the door of the temple, which is both sexually immoral and renders them ritually unclean.) Two degrees of less-then-ideal leadership, one that carries it out insensitively or ineptly, and one that is abusive.
Now, each of us is likely at some point to be in a position to step on someone else’s toes, whether at a high or low level. Let us pray that our own personality quirks, foibles, and human failings are not the cause of pain, harm, or loss of faith for someone we are to be serving. But, from the position of Hannah, she does not appear to take great offense at Eli’s suggestion. Perhaps she recognizes his humanity.
Do not, brethren, put your trust in man though he be a Bishop, an Apostle or a President; if you do, they will fail you at some time or place; they will do wrong or seem to, and your support be gone; but if we lean on God, He never will fail us. When men and women depend on God alone and trust in Him alone, their faith will not be shaken if the highest in the Church should step aside. … Perhaps it is His own design that faults and weaknesses should appear in high places in order that His Saints may learn to trust in Him and not in any man or woman. -President George Q. Cannon, Millennial Star 53:658-659, 673-675.
God eventually calls Eli to account. But what about the effect on the Israelites in the meantime? There isn’t exactly another temple they can go to, and Eli is the high priest.
In our situation, what is the best way or ways to respond to less-than-ideal leadership? What makes it hard to respond that way? If WE are the leadership, how can we best be aware either of abuses going on on our watch, or be aware of our own ineptness?
Things to remember-
1) Though it may be little comfort at the time, God always keeps account. (“Let God judge between me and thee”).
2) Those who leave our community may still do good while they are in it and after they leave it. (Was it a mistake to crown Saul?)
3) What is to be gained and lost by avenging, or by going less active?
- Hannah ≈ John. How? Hanan means “to favor, show grace.” Hannah is the noun version, John is the verbal version, yeho-hanan, “Yahweh has favored.”
- The text of Samuel is very poorly preserved. Translations have to fill in many gaps where the text simply makes no sense. Note that the KJV gives no hint of this.
In 1 Samuel 13:1 the number of years that Saul reigned in Jerusalem appears to be left out. This is why various modern translations differ in the translation at this verse:
nasb: “Saul was forty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned thirty-two years over Israel.”
niv: “Saul was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel forty-two years.”
kjv: “Saul reigned one year; and when he had reigned two years over Israel…”
The first two translations acknowledge that the ages have fallen out and supply the missing information using logical deduction. However, the King James Bible just translates it as if nothing has fallen out of the text.- Wegner, A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible: Its History, Methods & Results, 50. (My italics.)
Today’s Recommended Books
Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative
Nahum Sarna, the chapter in Ancient Israel: From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple (Revised & Expanded)
Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis