All posts by Michael O'Neil

About Michael O'Neil

Hi, thanks for stopping by! A couple of months ago a student gave me a cap embroidered with the words "Theology Matters." And so it does. I fervently believe that theology must not be an arcane academic pursuit reserved only for a few super-nerdy types. Rather, theology exists for the sake of the church and its mission. It exists to assist ordinary believers read and enact Scripture in authentic ways, together, and in their own locale, as a local body of faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. I love the way reading and studying Scripture and theology has deepened my faith, broadened my vision, enriched my ministry and changed my life. I hope that what you find here might help you along a similar path. A bit about me: I have been married to Monica for over thirty years now and we have served in various pastoral, teaching, missions and leadership roles for the whole of our lives together. We have three incredible adult children who with their partners, are the delight of our lives. For the last few years I have taught theology and overseen the research degrees programme at Vose Seminary in Perth, Western Australia. I also assist Monica in a new church planting endeavour in our city. In 2013 my first book was published: Church as Moral Community: Karl Barth’s Vision of Christian Life, 1915-1922 (Milton Keynes: Paternoster). I can say that without a doubt, it is the very best book I have ever written and well worth a read!

The Word & Work of God

As Barth considers the eternal will of God in the election of Jesus Christ, he notes in passing that,

The very best of the older theologians have taught us that in the word which calls and justifies and sanctifies us, the word which forms the content of the biblical witness, we must recognise in all seriousness the Word of God. Beside and above and behind this Word there is none other. To this Word then we have good cause to hold fast both for time and eternity. This Word binds us to itself both for time and eternity, and in it all our confidence must be placed. This Word does not allow us to go beyond it. It allows us no other view of God or man than that which it reveals itself. It focusses all our thoughts upon this view and keeps them focussed there. It warns us against any distraction. This Word alone must satisfy all our questioning because it alone can do so. The work of God is revealed in this Word in its totality, being there revealed in such a way that there can be no depth of the knowledge of the divine work except in God’s Word, and the knowledge of the divine work cannot lead us to any depth which is not that of God’s Word (Church Dogmatics II/2, 150).

Barth is here arguing against speculative doctrines of divine election that begin elsewhere than with the revelation of God given in Jesus Christ. How can we truly understand the divine work if we turn from the place where God has made himself known: Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in holy scripture. When Barth says, “Word of God” we do well to keep in mind that he refers to both the Living and the Written Word in their mutual relation.

Of interest to me was the last sentence in the above citation, which provides a hermeneutical and methodological principle: The work of God is revealed in this Word in its totality, being there revealed in such a way that there can be no depth of the knowledge of the divine work except in God’s Word, and the knowledge of the divine work cannot lead us to any depth which is not that of God’s Word.

It is not uncommon to speak with Christians who adhere, for example, to the word of Jesus but who do so in a way at odds with the life and work of Jesus. Nor is it uncommon to speak with Christians who seek to follow in some aspect of the way and ethos of Jesus but do so in a way at odds with his teaching. For Barth, Jesus Christ is the criterion of all knowledge of God, but Jesus Christ as both the word and the work of God. No separation is permissible here, nor any division on the one side or the other. It may be that the emphasis falls now at this point, and then at another. It is likely that theological reflection leading to faith and work will alternate back and forth between the two, allowing both the Word of God and the work of God to mutually inform one another, but always with a precedence given to the Word which binds us to itself, and to and by which we also are bound.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 7:3-17

Read 1 Samuel 7:3-17

In verse three Samuel reappears in the narrative, having been out of the picture since chapter 4:1, and out of the picture for perhaps as long as twenty years. After their devastating loss to the Philistines Israel was indeed impoverished, and subject at least, to Philistine power. During this time Samuel continued to grow, not only in years but in his call, service, maturity, and reputation. Samuel was a prophet-judge, a circuit judge “bringing justice and encouraging worship” on an annual basis in the region where he served (Evans, 54). The four cities mentioned—Bethel, Gilgal, Mizpah and Ramah—are all centrally located a little south of Shiloh.

But Samuel appears to have done more than become a localised prophet or judge. In verse three he is addressing “all the house of Israel,” with a call to repentance that includes a rejection of idolatry. In the pre-exilic period of Israel’s history idolatry was a perennial issue, a form of religious-cultural syncretism, in which Israel were not whole-hearted in their devotion to God. Samuel confronts this attitude head-on:

If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your heart to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.

To the modern western mind, the idea of idolatry is curious if not foolish, primitive and superstitious. But the ancient Israelites were simply adapting themselves to the surrounding cultures, adopting their mores and religious values, and the promise of security that they brought. Seen in this light, idolatry is not simply the worship of wood and stone statues, but seeking one’s security in and setting one’s heart on anything other than the one God. Samuel will have none of it. True repentance will be indicated by the sole devotion of their hearts toward God; there is no place here for a divided heart.

True repentance, and true religion, are matters of the heart. This is understood in the Old Testament as the defining and motivating centre of human personality. It is this centre, as representing the whole, which is to “return” to the Lord in full and sole devotion. “For human beings,” says Murphy, “monotheism is never just a theory, but a decision” (52). And if Israel will do this, Samuel promises, God will deliver them from the power of the Philistines.

Samuel, it seems, has managed unify Israel, or at least gathered them in unity to Mizpah. The prophet-judge is in this sense also a prophet-general, a military as well as juridical and religious leader, as was common with a number of earlier judges. The gathered people confess their sins and make an offering to the Lord.

What happens next is difficult to describe. There is both a military confrontation and a divine intervention. Or it may be that the divine intervention was through the military confrontation. Murphy suggests,

What happens in the story theologically is that ‘the Lord thunders’ against the Philistines and throws them into terrified flight; what happens humanly is that all the tribes act as one; and these two, the human and the theological, occur simultaneously (53).

All the focus of the narrative is on Samuel and his action. Samuel does not fight; he prays and sacrifices, and God hears and answers his prayer. Certainly Israel fights and pursues; certainly God superintends and gives deliverance. Yet it is Samuel’s leadership, his wholehearted and single-minded devotion to God which calls, inspires, and gathers Israel, and acts as a lightning rod of divine presence in the face of imminent threat and crisis.

There is no doubt that this was a significant military victory: the power of Philistia over the Israelites was decisively beaten for the whole period of Samuel’s life. More significantly, it was a crucial stage along the road of Israel’s national and religious development. Through the force of Samuel’s example, spirituality, and leadership Israel, emerging from a period of terrible defeat and oppression, was becoming unified as one people devoted to one God.

2018 Australian Theology Conferences

Two Australian theology conferences have released their Calls for Papers. The 2018 ANZATS Conference is scheduled for July 1-4 in Brisbane, and is themed “Sacrifice.” The Karl Barth Study Group will meet again at this Conference for our fourth time.

Shortly after that, the 2018 Theology Connect Conference is scheduled for July 13-14 in Sydney. Its theme is “Sin and Grace in Christian Theology.”

And then shortly after that, Vose Seminary is conducting a conference with Wisdom Literature specialist, Tremper Longman – details to follow shortly! But save the date: August 28-29, 2018.

Martin “Eleutherius” Luther

I learnt a great deal while preparing my paper for the recent Luther@500 Conference at Vose Seminary. None of it was original, of course, but a harvesting of the fruits of others’ scholarship informing my own engagement with Luther’s writings. The point most significant for me was the dawning recognition that Martin Luther was not always Martin Luther. This is one of those “obvious” facts, that sits on the edge of awareness but then the penny drops.

I had known that young Martin was born to Hans and Margarete Luder. In biographies and other Reformation sources, the family name is always applied to Luther’s parents. Yet, somehow, I had never gone on to ask the question, How and when and why did Martin Luder become Martin Luther?

In my research it became clear that the change had already occurred by the time Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses, for the superscription for the Theses uses the name, although spelt Lutther. Whether this was intentional or a printer’s mistake in the facsimile I examined, I do not know. We know, too, that Luther sent a copy of his Theses to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz on October 31, 1517, in the name of “Luther” (see Wengert, ed., The Annotated Luther Volume 1:The Roots of Reform, 34, 47-55). Bernard Lohse suggests that this was the first time that Luder adopted and used this name (Martin Luther’s Theology, 101).

Historians note that it was not unusual for humanists to adopt a Greek form of their name to produce a scholarly pseudonym. For example, the brilliant young humanist Philip Schwarzerd, who entered the University of Heidelberg at the tender age of twelve, is better known by his Greek name: Philip Melanchthon (Evans, The Roots of the Reformation, 273).

Around this time Luther also began using a Greek name when he signed his letters: eleutherius – the free one. Heinz Schilling suggests that as Luder’s work took him out of the academy and into the world of the common folk among whom the Greek name would be meaningless, “he preserved a reminder of the freedom that was at the heart of reformed theology: the central th in the Greek form of his name was carried over into his family name. Martin Luder became Martin Luther” (Martin Luther: Rebel in an Age of Upheaval, 139).

It is possible that Luther wanted to change his name for other reasons. Marcus Wriedt suggests that “Luder” bore the connotation as such words as ‘dirt’ or ‘garbage’ (“Luther’s Theology,” in Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther, 86). Whether in the sixteenth century the word had the colloquial connotations it does in the modern period—i.e. as a reference to a “common” woman considered an immoral “hussy”—I cannot say.

What is significant, I believe, is that Luther used his new name—indicative of a new identity?—in his first foray into the public sphere with the new theology that he had been developing and teaching at the Wittenberg University for several years. In his letter addressed to Albrecht, and in his Ninety-Five Theses, Luther was identifying as one freed by Christ and the gospel; freed from scholastic theology, freed from the fear of judgement, freed in order to help others find similar freedom.

Luther’s very name is itself testimony to the heart of his theological and pastoral vision: a theology of freedom issuing from the free grace of the free God who makes his people free. Scott Hendrix concurs: “From this point on [here, 1521], freedom for Luther meant living bound to Christ, and that freedom made him much more than a protester against indulgences or a critic of the pope. Now he was a man with a larger vision of what religion could be and a mission to realize that vision by making other people free” (Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer, 115).

Of course, Luther’s freedom is the paradoxical freedom of the one who has been found and bound in Christ. This is worlds away from libertarian concepts of personal and individual autonomy common today. It is the freedom of one so free they become free even from themselves, even from their own will to be free: they become servants of Christ and of others. This is the genius of Luther’s little tractate The Freedom of a Christian.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 6:1 – 7:2

Read 1 Samuel 6:1 – 7:2

The ark has wreaked havoc in Philistia, or so it seems, and the leaders want rid of it. They seek the counsel of the priests and diviners, who suggest returning it with a “guilt offering” so that healing might come to the people. On the one hand, they assume that the trouble that has befallen them is the direct action of Israel’s God. On the other, however, a question remains whether this is in fact the case, or whether they have had a particularly bad run of luck (v. 9). Nonetheless, their counsel assumes that the root of their problems is God.

The guilt offering suggested was five golden mice and five golden tumours—corresponding, probably, to their afflictions, and presumably, to their cause. By sending these tokens with the ark they acknowledged that this plague had come from God, and by sending them out of the country, they also are symbolically sending the plague away. Although it is easy to view the Philistines as deeply superstitious, such a characterisation is less than fair. Indeed, the text itself indicates that the Philistines are aware of what happened to Pharaoh and the Egyptians, and take it as a warning (v. 6).

The priests and diviners do not make it easy on themselves. They insist on a new cart with cattle that have never been yoked. They choose milk cows with calves, but take the calves away from the cows. The cows are left free to go where they will, yet they do not return back to their calves, but go straight toward the land of Israel; the plagues have not been a coincidence.

The people of Beth-shemesh rejoice to see the ark and offer appropriate—and costly—sacrifices. But, and here the story takes an interesting twist, some of the people look into the ark and are struck dead. (One wonders what Calvin would make of those who seek to “peer into the depths of God.” Calvin repudiated such speculative attempts to apprehend the essence of God, and insisted that we content ourselves with that which God has revealed.) Again there is a difficulty in the Hebrew which suggests that perhaps 50,070 people were killed, but the structure of verse nineteen is difficult, and most translations and commentators opt for the more “reasonable” number of seventy. Nevertheless, this cost is too great for the people of Beth-shemesh and they send it away to Kiriath-jearim where it remains for some twenty years.

In chapters four and five we found that God had judged his people and allowed them to be decisively defeated. God has also allowed himself to be “captured,” to be taken into the hands and control of the pagans, to be exiled and cut off from his people. And yet God is not captured, not exiled, not defeated, and not controlled. God remains Lord even in “defeat.” God bears witness to himself where Israel has failed to do so, and so wins the acknowledgement and grudging respect, if not the love, of the Philistines. God has now returned from his exile, returned to his people, but God will not be their captive or their possession either. The people of Beth-shemesh have transgressed the boundary, presumed upon the divine majesty, and failed to consider his holiness. They have not, as the early Barth insisted in his first Romans commentary, “respected the distance.”

It is likely, as Murphy notes (48), that no one really understands the disasters in 1 Samuel 5-6, for the passage lies beyond our historical ability. This does not mean, however, that we can gain no instruction or benefit from it. The ark is the symbol—and sacrament—of the divine presence. Indeed Murphy declares that “it is not possible to understand this carnival of the glory of the Lord in his ark without appreciating sacramental power” (49). The ark is an earthly tangible thing, but simultaneously the divine throne by which God is present with and enthroned amongst his people. Its potency is “a visible symbol” of the glory that it bears (ibid.). As the divine throne it is also sacred, and to be acknowledged, honoured and treated as such. Evans (50) wonders whether Paul might have had a passage like this in mind when he warned against misuse of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11.

Within the overall structure of the narrative, another insight dawns. The ark is now housed at Kiriath-jearim for twenty years—a back-water, out-of-the-way kind of place—side-lined, and marginal to the life of Israel, until David retrieves it and brings it to Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 6. This is a figurative portrayal of the sidelining of God in the national life; the divine kingship is marginal until David is established as king and the ark restored to Jerusalem (see Murphy, 51). If this interpretation is accepted, it provides a lens through which the rest of the book is to be understood, and in particular, the reign of Saul.

One further point of instruction may be possible. It may be appropriate to read this text typologically or allegorically, as pointing to Jesus Christ, who is in his own flesh, the presence and covenant of God with us. He, too, was captured, taken into the hands and control of the pagans, cut off from his people, exiled from God and nation—yet not captured, defeated, exiled or controlled, but victorious. But this text would also warn us that we either have Jesus on his own terms or not at all. He is never our possession, but the holy God who has come to us in mercy, and the merciful God who nevertheless ever remains the holy One who is Lord.

Luther@500

Last week Vose Seminary conducted a half-day Luther@500 Conference, around the theme of The Pastoral Luther. Although the event was only pulled together in the last couple of months, for much of the year I was keen to see the Seminary mark this anniversary of the Reformation.

For me, there were several highlights: first, the strength and quality of the four papers. Peter Elliott started proceedings with an historical account of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, and insight into the pastoral concerns that formed a significant motivation for Luther’s action. My paper on Luther’s pastoral theology followed, in which I examined two documents from Luther’s early career: a sermon entitled A Meditation on Christ’s Passion (1519) and his justly renowned The Freedom of a Christian (1520). I argued that Luther sought to free salvation from the model of human religious performance that prevailed in the late medieval period, and that he also viewed it as a salvation that frees. Matthew Bishop’s paper explored the phenomenon of depression, and analysed a number of Luther’s letters to the depressed in order to ascertain insights and principles to guide pastoral care in the present. While not everything from the sixteenth-century context is transferrable to the present, there is still much to learn from the one sometimes referred to as “Christianity’s most famous depressive.” Finally, Brian Harris explored several aspects of Luther’s leadership, noting first that there appears to be little written on this subject. He noted Luther’s character and courage, his strategic use of the latest technologies, his work ethic, and his popularising of the message. Brian also highlighted some less savoury aspects of Luther’s leadership, especially his rhetoric with respect to the Jews, which, while not out of character for the times, was out of character with Christ, and which also had devastating consequences in later centuries.

The second highlight was the ecumenical nature of the event. About forty people gathered for the conference, coming from a variety of denominations and backgrounds, and included ministers, students, and lay persons. I am grateful that the Seminary had and seized this opportunity to serve the church in a way for which it is uniquely qualified. I am grateful, too,  for Peter Elliott and Perth Bible College for joining us in this endeavour.

The third and perhaps most special highlight was having Matthew Bishop join us for the conference. Matthew is a Lutheran pastor in a local congregation. Not only did Matthew bring a great deal of knowledge of Luther, but also an ecumenical openness and warmth, together with a substantial pastoral integrity. His being a Lutheran also lent a certain authenticity to the gathering. To make new friends, and to see bridges of fellowship strengthened across denominational and institutional lines is a blessing indeed, and made this seminar well worthwhile, and not only for remembering Luther’s achievement.

The Shared Table

Yesterday I had the opportunity to preach at Living Grace church in Dianella. The passage was Matthew 9:9-13 – Matthew’s Party. My major point was to contrast the Pharisees’ ethic or spirituality of purity through separation with Jesus’ ethic or spirituality of redemptive engagement. In particular, Jesus’ table fellowship is understood as a sign of the kingdom in the same way as his miracles are. I used two citations in the sermon that I use also in classes. The first, from Luke Timothy Johnson, is a paraphrase: “The meals are where the magic is.” The second is from Walter Kasper’s Jesus the Christ, which includes the wonderful line, “the shared table is a shared life.” The Lord shares his life with us at the table. We are invited to extend his hospitality to others in similar fashion. The meals are where the magic happens.

In the east, even today, to share a meal with someone is a guarantee of peace, trust, brotherhood and forgiveness; the shared table is a shared life. In Judaism fellowship at table had the special meaning of fellowship in the sight of God…every meal is a sign of the coming eschatological meal and eschatological fellowship with God. Thus, Jesus’ meals with publicans and sinners, too, are not only events on a social level, not only an expression of his unusual humanity and social generosity and his sympathy with those who were despised, but had an even deeper significance. They are an expression of the mission and message of Jesus, anticipatory meals, celebrations of feasts in the end time, in which the community of saints is already being represented. The inclusion of sinners in the community of salvation, achieved in table fellowship is the most meaningful expression of the message of the redeeming love of God…Jesus, in taking sinners into fellowship with him, takes them into fellowship with God. This means that he forgives sins (Kasper, Jesus the Christ, 101-102).

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 5

Read 1 Samuel 5

Samuel disappears in chapters five and six, as do all the major characters in the story thus far. The scene shifts from Shiloh to Ashdod, and the main character in the story is now the Ark itself, which has been captured by the Philistines and installed in the temple of Dagon at Ashdod. The defeat of an enemy in the ancient world also signified the defeat of that enemy’s god. This is exemplified in the capture of the Ark; not only is Israel defeated, but their god has been captured. Bringing the Ark into the temple of Dagon is an act of celebration of Dagon’s triumph and supremacy over the god of Israel. The Ark becomes a trophy and symbol of Dagon’s power. Israel’s god was unable to defend its own people from the greater power of their opponents and their god.

In the Hebrew Bible Dagon is associated with the Philistines who perhaps adopted Dagan as their national deity soon after they arrived in Palestine early in the Iron Age (Tsumura, “Canaan, Canaanites” in DOTHB, 127). Dagan was a traditional god of Syria-Palestine, attested as early as the third millennium BCE. Although identified as a fish-god since the medieval period, more recent scholarship suggests his name has more to do with grain, and thus was perhaps a fertility deity associated with agriculture. He was in any case understood as a powerful god. Excavations at Ugarit have unearthed two temples in the city, one devoted to Baal, the other to Dagan. In the Ugarit pantheon, consisting of as many as 240 deities, Dagan was second to El and understood as father to Baal (see Curtis, “Canaanite Gods and Religions” DOTHB, 132-142). Philistine attachment to and trust in Dagon is seen in Judges 16:23-24 where the Philistines credit Dagon with their victory over Samson—although the story did not end well for the Philistines in that instance.

The commentators suggest that this passage is to be understood as humour (for Israelite readers at least)—black humour to be sure—the function of which is to mock the Philistines and their god. The opening scene pours scorn on the supposed power of Dagon, for the idol falls not once but twice before the Ark. After the first fall, Dagon must be helped back to his plinth; after the second, he is broken in pieces, his impotence plain for all to see. The story functions apologetically, to repudiate a possible interpretation concerning the capture of the Ark. Israel’s God has not been defeated by a greater power. Indeed the story demonstrates the livingness of Israel’s God compared to the lifelessness and impotence of Dagon. In the “Battle of the Gods” Dagon’s claims are slapped down and exposed as pretensions. The story also then, shows that the defeat of Israel, far from being the defeat of Yahweh, was the judgement of Yahweh upon his people as predicted by the anonymous man of God in chapter two. Further, it clearly indicates that Yahweh as the living God cannot be manipulated by his people, but retains his sovereign freedom.

Nor can the Philistines subject Israel’s God to their own will. Not only is Dagon assaulted, but the people of the Philistine cities also experience an outbreak of plague that seems coordinated to the presence of the Ark among them. The text itself is clear: “the hand of the Lord was heavy against the people of Ashdod, and he terrified and afflicted them with tumours” (verse 6), with the result that many died (verse 12). Modern scholars wonder if the plague may have been a form of bubonic plague spread by a plague of mice (6:4-5).

Murphy, utilising the LXX’s rendition of 5:9, refers to the tumours as genital warts, or more colloquially, “bum-warts” (44). She uses this story to reflect on the character of miracles and divine power in conversation with John Henry Newman who suggests that the portrayal of the Ark-miracles in this chapter might be analogous to the somewhat wild and “romantic” nature of post-biblical miracles. Typically, those who defend the miracle accounts in scripture argue for the rationality of these miracles because they fit with what may be known of God from nature and morality. But not all biblical miracles fit that mould. Murphy finds little in this chapter’s account of miracles that conforms to reason, morality or beauty. But they are not on that account to be rejected. They are “divine punishments” that teach us that “the hand of God can appear at will and in the unlikeliest “Elishas” because it is not subject but sovereign” (46). The account challenges our perceptions of God, especially a god we would manipulate, contain, or set in a box. Murphy cites John Henry Newman to warn against such limitations on God, or interpretive strategies which make the biblical portrayal of God more amenable to our sensibilities. If I read her rightly, she wants to leave open the possibility that God will not conform to our demands of what we think God should be. In this respect God is sovereign, and as such, sovereignly free.

The supernatural glory might abide, and yet be manifold, variable, uncertain, inscrutable, uncontrollable, like the natural atmosphere; dispensing gleams, shadows, traces of Almighty Power, but giving no such clear and perfect vision of it as one might gaze upon and record distinctly in its details for controversial purposes. Thus we are told, “the wind bloweth where it listeth” (cited in Murphy, 46).

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 4 (Cont)

Read 1 Samuel 4 

When the news of Israel’s defeat reached Shiloh, Eli heard that the prophesied sign had been fulfilled: both his sons had died on the same day. Although this no doubt upset him, what was really distressing was that the ark—for which he was responsible—had been captured. Upon hearing this news he fell backwards off his seat, broke his neck and died. The narrator tells us that the reason was that he was old and—despite his advanced age—“heavy” (v. 18). His death, and that of his sons (all on the one day—verse 12), signalled the end of an era. He had judged Israel for forty years.

Eli was fat (GNB), heavy (NRSV; ESV). The word used here is kabod, which can indeed mean heavy or plump. It also has connotations of being prosperous—one is heavy because one is wealthy enough to eat a great deal of food. Colloquially, we might speak analogically of those who are “heavy-weights,” speaking of their authority or influence: they are a “weighty” person to be reckoned with. A similar manner of speaking developed in the Hebrew language where the word kabod could refer not merely to one who was literally heavy, but who metaphorically, was heavy in terms of their influence and authority. Eli was both. Significantly, however, the word came to be applied to God as the one who is ultimately “weighty” in his sovereignty and power. Kabod is the term used to refer to the divine glory, the visible manifestation of God’s “heaviness,” presence and power. This glory was directly associated with the ark when Moses completed its construction in Exodus 40:21, 33-34:

And he brought the ark into the tabernacle…So Moses finished the work. Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.

God would dwell with his people, meet with them, and speak to them from the ark (Exodus 25:8, 22), and they and it would be sanctified by his glory (29:43).

The final episode of 1 Samuel 4 is the tragic tale of the birth of a child, born an orphan, and named by his dying mother as Ichabod, meaning that “the glory has departed from Israel.” Perhaps there is some ambiguity here. Certainly the loss of the ark signifies the loss of the divine glory. But perhaps there is also a sense of human bitterness here: the loss of the glory of Eli’s house, of her station in life, of the hopes and dreams that she and all her family had harboured thus far. This child, who hitherto had been the object of fond hopes, perhaps even of the continuation of the dynasty—“do not be afraid for you have born a son!”—is now i-kabod, “no glory.”

Blind Eli had lacked insight into the true nature of things. In place of the divine glory and presence, he was satisfied with his own weighty presence. In place of honouring the worship of God he honoured his sons. He presumed that his position was one of privilege rather than faithful service. He did according to what was in his own heart rather than that which was in God’s heart and mind (2:35).

In their rise, Eli and his house had been guilty of overreach, or what the ancient Greeks called hubris: by failing to discipline his sons, Eli has acted as if the familial claim to ark guardianship was a given. … Hubris is a lack of balance, because the proud man overestimates his place in the scheme of things. Balance in the moral order is restored by retribution. “Like Herodotus, the Old Testament exhibits a dominant concern with the issue of divine retribution for unlawful acts as a fundamental principle of historical causation. Human responsibility and divine justice are frequently stated themes. … For both, history is theodicy” (Murphy, 40, citing Van Seters, In Search of History: Historiography in the Ancient World and the Origins of Biblical History (New Haven: Yale, 1983), 39-40).

Murphy suggests—and suggests that the Old Testament itself suggests—that there is a kind of historical moral providence in which history is the sphere in which divine moral accounting is played out and established. This is not merely an impersonal “you-reap-what-you-sow” principle at work. Although the rise and fall of nations, and of individual leaders in this case, is played out in terms of historical causation and agency, behind this historical procession God is personally active, working to holding historical figures to account. Murphy is not suggesting that God is the active causative agent of all that occurs, but that God is active in judgement and moral accountability. Van Seters may be correct to assert that for both the ancient Greeks and Hebrews “history is theodicy,” but from a biblical point of view it is not sufficient to limit theodicy to history: it is too vague, too “after the event,” too indirect to provide the kind of justice humanity really cries out for. An ultimate accounting, a final judgement, remains necessary, as both Jesus and the Bible testify. Nevertheless, the story of Eli reminds us that God calls his people, and especially his leaders, to covenantal faithfulness, and that he will hold them accountable for this. The implications for contemporary Christian leaders are obvious.

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 4

Read 1 Samuel 4 

It seems that some years have passed since the “man of God” prophesied the Lord’s rejection of Eli’s house (2:27-36). Eli is now ninety-eight years of age, and almost blind. Until now the focus of the story has been on Shiloh, and on Samuel. Now the focus expands to take in national affairs, and Samuel disappears. Israel’s old enemies the Philistines, who had troubled Israel in the days of Samson, return once more to trouble them again. The chapter has two major parts. Verses 1-11 describe the Israel’s loss on the battlefield, while verses 12-22 describe the death of Eli.

In the early part of the chapter, the two armies face each other, and in an initial battle, Israel is defeated with a significant loss of life. After the battle the elders of Israel determine that God has allowed this defeat (GNB), or more directly, that the Lord himself has defeated Israel (NRSV, ESV). They therefore call for the ark of the covenant of the Lord so that God may be among them and save them from the Philistines. Despite the enthusiasm of the army, the plan fails, Israel is decisively defeated, the ark is captured and the two sons of Eli die in the battle, as prophesied by the man of God in 2:34.

The loss of 4000 soldiers in battle would an extraordinary loss. To lose 30,000 would be devastating to the nation as a whole. A whole generation of men—the loss of army, husbands, fathers, sons, farmers, etc. The magnitude of the slaughter is unimaginable, and such a massive defeat would decimate and impoverish the nation. Numbers in the Hebrew Bible are a problematic matter for biblical scholars, and a number of interpretations are suggested including, the numbers are to be understood literally, symbolically, as hyperbole, or re-translated since the Hebrew word ’elep can mean not only “thousand” but family or clan or tribal leader. Many scholars suggest the third option has the least problems and so is to be preferred. (And though I have said that a thousand times, no one believes me!) Nonetheless, even allowing for numeric inflation, this was a devastating loss for Israel, resulting in their being occupied by the Philistines for over twenty years. The Judges’ cycle of apostasy, oppression and deliverance is being repeated here.

A question arises as to whether the soldiers and the elders have a superstitious regard for the ark. Are they “taking the name of the Lord in vain,” as it were, presuming on God in a kind of civic religion that assumes “God” will give them victory no matter the condition of their ongoing relation with God? Evans takes this interpretation, and warns that symbols of the divine presence cannot be treated superstitiously as though we can manipulate God and gain our own ends (42). There is no doubt that this is a perennial issue in Christian spirituality. It seems that we are endlessly creative in devising means of “using” God to get what we want. We imagine that God’s power is an impersonal “force” that we can “tap into” and direct toward our advantage. Such forms of spirituality are more akin to magic and superstition than biblical faith.

Murphy takes a different view, arguing that “the elders had every reason to think that the ark is literally the presence of the Lord.” It was “a strategy of good faith, not superstition” (37). In Judges the conquest of the land is initiated by the priests carrying the ark across the Jordan. At Jericho, the ark led the people as they marched around the city. Yet in this case, there will be no victory, not because God now is impotent, but because of divine judgement: Hophni and Phineas accompany the ark. “The battle at Ebenezer is lost, not because of the elders’ supposing that the ark would automatically save them, but because of the impious behavior of Eli’s sons” (37).

This view finds implicit corroboration in the text itself. Four times in three verses (vv. 3-5) the ark is named the “ark of the covenant of the Lord.” While it is certainly true that the covenant of God with Israel provided many privileges, benefits and blessings to the people, it came also with obligations and responsibilities—obligations that Eli and his sons, at least, had forsaken. Eli had “scorned” God’s sacrifices and offerings, and honoured his sons above Yahweh (2:29). Though the sons accompanied the ark, they had violated their office, the people, the people’s sacrifices and worship, and so the covenant itself. Though they accompanied the ark, the blessing of the covenant would not accompany them.