Sunday, July 17, 2011

Saul and Sorcery: Whispers from the Ground

“For dust you are and to the dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).

The witch was a necromancer, a magician that summoned into the material world spirits of the human departed. In her rituals and in her very words, the most vital component of her craft involved the earth. In 1 Samuel 28:13, she claimed that she saw the Prophet Samuel coming up out of “the ground.” There is a part in Israelite culture which holds that “the grave” (Ecclesiastes 9:10), also known as “the pit,” is the “common destiny” shared by “the righteous and the wicked” (verse 2). In some way we can see where the belief of the Sadducees emerged from. For these materialists, their doctrine bore no provision for the immortality of the human soul, resurrection of the physical body, or any existence of the afterlife. For them, heaven was Israel and hell was either physical death or exile from the Promised Land. If there was any truth to a resurrection, it was in symbolism to repatriation or, in context to contemporary events, the rebirth of the Jewish state of Israel. The core of the Sadducean doctrine was tied to the land of Israel, upon which stood the cornerstone of their faith: the Temple of Solomon. Sadducean culture, according to the outstanding Jewish historian Max I. Dimont, was hewn out of “the letter of the law, not its spirit” (Jews, God and History, Mentor Books: New York, NY, 1994; p.103). It was rigidly fixed to the Temple in Jerusalem, so that when Jerusalem fell to the Roman siege in 135 A.D., the Sadducees disappeared forever.

For the witch, however, there was great respect for the existence of spirits, ancestral spirits, as far as her occult was concerned that inhabited the infernal regions of the earth. This is how she beheld “gods ascending out of the earth” (King James Version). For her ritual, the original Hebrew term for “familiar spirit,” or ôwb, hints on the use of an apparatus that helped produce a hollow sound, either a water-skin or earthen jar. For some Bible scholars and historians, the latter could have been most probably used. While the water-skin made for a good texture of the human flesh, man was more affiliated with the earth. In representing the human body, God and His writers in both the Old and New Testaments used the earth, be it as the ground or in its clay and manufactured form as pottery, as the prime symbol. In Leviticus 6:28, for example, a priestly ritual that regards breaking a clay pot on which a sacrificial meat was cooked represented the earthly body of Jesus Christ. In Leviticus 11, it was prescribed that a vessel—“whether…of wood, cloth, hide or sackcloth” (verse 32)—which any one the specified creatures in verses 29 and 30 touches “will be unclean” (verse 32). But if the vessel was a clay pot, “everything in it will be unclean, and you must break the pot” (verse 33). Figuratively, the earth became irredeemably corrupt once touched by sin; and since the human body came from the earth it received the full brunt of corruption: death (Genesis 3:19).

Photo: Marilyn Angel Wynn/
The earth, with its supple property to be shaped as a container, has been the perfect representative of man’s spiritual corruption and mortality. In 2 Timothy 2:20, the Apostle Paul speaks of vessels of dishonor, by which he probably meant portable latrines popular in households during ancient times, most were those made in clay. The analogy the Apostle Paul makes in this passage is both amazing and appalling. In the twentieth verse of 2 Timothy 2, it says that, “But in a great house here are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay, some for honor and some for dishonor.” He continues in the twenty-first where he makes his point so highlighted, the shock will stick to the reader until dinner time has past: “Therefore if anyone cleanses himself from the latter, he will be a vessel of honor, sanctified and useful for the Master, prepared for every good work.” Imagine a portable latrine being “cleansed” by a Master, transforming this vessel of ignoble use into a pristine glazed pottery fit for a king to dine on on the most special of occasions. This, of course, is illustrative of the purifying power of the blood of Jesus that has been provided by God in His New Testament. In His Old Testament, well, any earthen pot was broken when ceremonially used by the priest (Leviticus 6:28) or when a lizard falls on it (Leviticus 11:32). But in these earthen jars, the Apostle Paul does not deny God’s sovereign choice to keep in them His “treasure” so that the excellence of God may be fully seen and understood by the perishing world of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7).

Photo: The Bridgeman Art Library/
And in this earthen ware, the witch was believed to have whispered into to “bring up” (1 Samuel 28:11) “an old man wearing a robe” (verse 14).

Throughout the account of Saul, there were several elements that persistently appeared and have come to be associated with his destiny. One of these was the earth. Immediately after being crowned king, Saul went farming. Obviously, Saul loved farming. After being anointed, the Prophet Samuel gave Saul a long detailed prediction of events that the young king would encounter on his way back home. The main concern above all these encounters was Saul being baptized in the Spirit of the Lord. In 1 Samuel 10:6, the man of God briefs the king:

“The Spirit of the Lord will come upon you in power, and you will prophesy with them [the prophets]; and you will be changed into a different person.”

After this was an instruction for Saul to pursue: “Once these signs are fulfilled, do whatever your hand finds to do, for God is with you” (verse 7).

For the rest of the tenth chapter, it was apparent that Saul was yet to find something specific for his hand to do. In the eleventh, he finally decides. In the fifth verse, he actually goes back to farming. This is the first association we find of him with the earth. The next implication of Saul’s relationship with the earth is in 1 Samuel 13:6 where the Israelites, upon witnessing the frighteningly massive Philistine army at Micmash, scrambled in panic to hide in “caves and thickets, among the rocks, and in pits and cisterns.” In the ninth verse, the king decides to take matters into his own hands and offer up the burnt and fellowship offerings himself; it was a task prescribed for the Prophet Samuel to accomplish, not the king. Furthermore, the sacrifice was not offered on the mandatory altar of earth prescribed by Moses in Exodus 20:24. It was during the Israelites’ sin of engorging bloodied meat in 1 Samuel 14:35 when it occurred for the first time to Saul to construct the altar of earth.

It seems that every time the earth comes into the picture, it was during Saul’s time of spiritual weakness and compromise. The story of the Israelites devouring meat with blood still in it was another incident where the earth is mentioned yet again. Here, it appears several times. First, the battle with the Philistines started in a Philistine outpost on a cliff overlooking a pass which Saul’s son Jonathan daringly crossed to engage twenty of its soldiers (1 Samuel 14:4 to 14).  To Jonathan God granted the victory, for from this great piece of towering earth, the skirmish he sparked went on to sweep over the immense Philistine camp with deadly mayhem: “…the Philistines [were] in total confusion, striking each other with their swords” (verse 20).

But while the symbol of the earth signaled wonders for Jonathan, it was sadly not the same for Saul. While the Israelites chased down the Philistines out of Micmash, Saul became so possessed with his zeal that he decided to compel his entire army under a vow of a fast until they have overtaken the retreating Philistines. Instead of zeal and rejoicing, “the men of Israel were in distress that day” because of the vow they were forced to swallow (14:24). On the succeeding verse, the Scriptures give up the portent:

“The entire army entered the woods, and there was honey on the ground (verse 25).

All of that honey which God provided to refresh His army after those days of standing in fear, famished but numb to its pangs, as they stood in the face of a force “as numerous as the sand on the seashore” (1 Samuel 13:5), from which there was no escape. Now, the sudden burst of opportunity propels them from hiding to hot pursuit and in a short moment of exploding into energy, the spasms of hunger begin kicking in. And God had just the thing for that. In a wooded region nearby a rich libation of wild honey freely flowed to the ground, bringing to life a literal depiction of how Moses and the Israelite slaves imagined the Promised Land, “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8). It was just too bad that Saul’s zeal kept them from being rejuvenated. But not for Jonathan, the hero who ignited Israelite valiance. Clueless of his father’s vow, he reached out his staff at a honeycomb and lapped some life-giving honey with his hand, and “his eyes brightened,” or in other translations, “his strength was renewed” (1 Samuel 14:28). Before all the salivating Israelite soldiers, Jonathan testified: “My father has made trouble for the country. See how my eyes brightened when I tasted a little of this honey. How much better it would have been if the men had eaten today some of the plunder they took from their enemies. Would not the slaughter of the Philistines have been even greater?” (verses 29 to 30)

Saul’s reckless vow instead turned them into a mob of crazed lunatics who acted like a school of sharks in a feeding frenzy. The moment they overtook the Philistines, “they pounced on the plunder and, taking sheep, cattle and calves, they butchered them on the ground and ate them, together with the blood” (verses 32 and 33). Notice the irony: the wild honey which belonged to human lips did not land on human lips, except on Jonathan’s; the rest got soaked up by the ground. Blood which was meant to drip to the ground, did not fall to the ground but went into the consumption of a hunger-crazed Israelite army who gorged it along with animal meat in disobedient abandon for a moment’s satisfaction.

Saul’s plan to plunder the Philistines never moved on from there. The victory he prayed for in initiating the vow ran aground and almost cost the life of Jonathan. The Israelite army rose into Jonathan’s defense and in an impassioned statement, the earth appears once again, this time in their words:

“Should Jonathan die—he who has brought about this great deliverance in Israel? Never! As surely as the Lord lives, not a hair of his head will fall to the ground, for he did this today with God’s help” (verse 45).

[I'll give you a clue: The article never ends! There's more!]

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