The Book of Samuel as Mirror of Us: Today
You’ve guessed this photograph isn’t of the prophet Samuel. It’s an image of a man named Dr. Micah Goodman. Native Israeli philosopher and writer Goodman has the ear of Israeli leaders, and since discovering him, mine. Once I listened to Dr. Goodman’s first of five online lectures on Samuel, I discarded the partially written article I’d intended for today to write this one.
His talk, The Book of Samuel: Religion, Politics, and the Longing for Order is, in a word, riveting.
Dr. Goodman never suggests in his forty-five-minute talk that what takes place in the Book of Samuel has any relevance to our 21st century either in the US or in Israel. But as I listened to Goodman reflect upon ancient Israel’s adherence to ritual while disregarding the Lord and His Law, I could not help thinking of us. Today.
And when he spoke of the Ark as a talisman for the salvation of Israel from their suffering and death, the parallels became impossible to ignore.
Even if much of the Book of Samuel is a distant memory-or unknown, Hannah’s heartfelt prayer to her God to end her barrenness is a familiar one:
“The priest Eli was on duty at the entrance to God’s Temple in the customary seat. Crushed in soul, Hannah prayed to God and cried and cried—inconsolably. Then she made a vow:
If you’ll take a good, hard look at my pain,
If you’ll quit neglecting me and go into action for me
By giving me a son,
I’ll give him completely, unreservedly to you.
I’ll set him apart for a life of holy discipline.
12-14 It so happened that as she continued in prayer before God, Eli was watching her closely. Hannah was praying in her heart, silently. Her lips moved, but no sound was heard. Eli jumped to the conclusion that she was drunk. He approached her and said, “You’re drunk! How long do you plan to keep this up? Sober up, woman!”
15-16 Hannah said, “Oh no, sir—please! I’m a woman brokenhearted. I haven’t been drinking. Not a drop of wine or beer. The only thing I’ve been pouring out is my heart, pouring it out to God. Don’t for a minute think I’m a bad woman. It’s because I’m so desperately unhappy and in such pain that I’ve stayed here so long.”
The priest’s response to Hannah is puzzling.
At least that was my thought each time I read it until listening to Dr. Goodman.
To him, the priest Eli’s response to Hannah’s plea to her God is emblematic of Israeli sin: In Goodman’s words, religion vs religiousity. He means by that distinction: religion as narrow, rigid and focused on ritual, not God. Nor ethics nor the other.
While religiousity is spontaneous heart-felt prayer. Just like Hannah’s was. In his distinction, Dr. Goodman refers to Martin Buber, whose Jewish theology cames so close to Christianity that the distinction between the two fade almost completely.
For me, a major attraction to Judaism and Catholicism is precisely our ritual, rules and dogma. And the word “religiousity” is off-putting because it sounds like the very thing Goodman says it’s not. Therefore I’m intrigued.
Because we don’t need to be historians to understand and fear the consequences of our love affair with ritual and it’s objects.
And so, as I’ve pondered Dr. Goodman’s first talk, Pope Francis’s controversial remarks and limitations on the Tridentine Mass have become much clearer. In a real sense, the Pope is talking precisely about the same thing as Goodman: religion vs religiousity.
In this first of a series of five talks on the Book of Samuel by Dr. Goodman, I listened-carefully. Because Goodman’s Isreali accent ican be challenging. I write next about a small portion of his provocative meditation.
Being human means to live in radical uncertainty
The Philiistines were the enemies of ancient Israel. Even the Philistines knew the power of the Israeli Lord who lived in the Ark. And so, when the Philistines caused horrendous casualties to the Israelis, the elders looked to the Ark as a solution.
Let’s fetch the ark of the covenant of Adonai from Shiloh that He may come among us and deliver us from the hand of our enemies.” 4 So the people sent to Shiloh, and from there they carried the ark of the covenant of Adonai-Tzva’ot who sits above the cheruvim. Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God. 5 Now when the ark of the covenant of Adonai entered the camp, all Israel shouted with a great shout, so that the ground resounded.
6 When the Philistines heard the noise of the shout, they wondered, “What’s this noise of a great shout in the camp of the Hebrews?” When they realized that the ark of Adonai had come into the camp, 7 the Philistines were afraid, for they said, “God has come into the camp.” So they said, “Woe to us!
“We can never see what’s before us, “Goodman says. We live in radical uncertainty because anything can happen at any time. But when religion promises certainty through performance of ritual, it becomes magic.”
The Ark had become magic, a symbol empty of obedience to the God of Israel. And the Philistines defeated Israel and took possession of the Ark.
It’s impossible for me to think this a tale about ancient people and ancient priests. Instead, these words feel relevant now. The Book of Samuel as Mirror of Us: Today.
Maybe that’s because my reading of the Old Testament usually feels as if I’m looking in a mirror.
Or it could be that I’ve read one too many of Johathan Cahn’s books about America as the new Israel.
Or more likely, it’s that I see us, our leaders, and even our priests behaving as if we’re above the commandments-as if they are no longer relevant to our “advanced culture:”
….Jesus shows that the commandments must not be understood as a minimum limit not to be gone beyond, but rather as a path involving a moral and spiritual journey towards perfection, at the heart of which is love….those who are impelled by love and walk by the Spirit (Gal5:16) …feel an interior urge-a genuine necessity and no longer a form of coercion-not to stop at the minimum demands of the Law, but to live them in their fullness…..St Paul ll
The Book of Samuel as Mirror of Us: Today