Thursday, January 30, 2014

An evil spirit from the Lord (1 Sam. 19:9)

David is playing the lyre, when the LORD sends an evil spirit on Saul. Saul picks up a spear and chucks it at David, trying to pin him to the wall. (1 Samuel 19:9)

I don't know about you, but this verse used to puzzle me. Doesn't God like David? Hasn't God already chosen David as king? Hasn't God already rejected Saul? And probably most crucial--I didn't think God sent evil spirits on people!  Doesn't James 1:13 say that God doesn't tempt people to do evil?

A similar instance is 2 Samuel 24:1, where God incites David to take a census that he later judges Israel severely for. You might be shocked to know that when 1 Chronicles 21 tells this story, it says that it was Satan who did it!!! "Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel."

I call these difficult verses, "naughty verses." They mess with our paradigms. We might wisely set them aside as "unclear verses" and stick to the big picture of Scripture.

But there is a better explanation, even if it should require us to modify our understanding of how Scripture works a little. It notes that 1 Chronicles was written perhaps a couple centuries after 2 Samuel, after the exile, after the idea of the Satan entered into the worldview of Israel.

You'll notice, for example, that Genesis does not yet know that the serpent is Satan. This was an insight that would not come until as late as the century before Christ! No Jewish literature we have makes this connection until a book called The Life of Adam and Eve in the first century BC.

So if Chronicles had told this story of Saul and David, it would have certainly said, "Satan sent an evil spirit on Saul... and Saul tried to pin David with a spear." Indeed, the book of Jubilees, written about 150BC, says that it was Satan who told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.

Naughty verses of this sort take our hermeneutic, our way of reading the Bible to the next level. This particular one drives us away from a pre-modern reading of difficult verses like these (one that has no historical sense of the words but reads them as timeless truths ripped from the times and places when they were written). It drives us to a better sense of these verses in history.

So we have to be very, very careful not to read Exodus 4:11 on its own: "Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord?"  The New Testament suggests that there are other spiritual forces in play in the universe. Again, this is why we need a whole Bible theology and not base our theology on individual verses. Individual verses come at moments in time, moments whose context we may not fully know or understand.

The Bible has within its pages a flow of revelation. The New Testament has a more complete and more precise understanding on many issues than the Old. This requires a bit of a paradigm shift. Rather than see every verse of the Bible saying the same thing from God to me, the words of the Bible ripped from their contexts and put in a timeless bubble, I have to get a better sense of the big picture. I am pushed away from a fundamentalist, verse level hermeneutic, to a whole Bible hermeneutic, like most Christians had before the 1800s.


Pastor Bob said...

Paul's admonition comes into play here. 2 Tim. 2:15 "rightly dividing the word of truth".

Don Smith said...

this brought to my mind my OT professor in college, Carl Schulz. We spent a fair amount of time discussing "closet dualism" in class. How often we read the OT in terms of a battle between God and some other force. What we discussed was whether this was a foreign concept to the early theology of the OT. If God is sovereign...That is the proposition. I am not suggesting that there are other forces at work in the world. However, if God is sovereign brings us to Job and theodicy. But, it also brings us the perspective that a sovereign God is in the end responsible. A sovereign God could stop things at any time. Of course, this is just a thought from a long time ago in a small snowy town in NY far, far away. As always, thanks for your views and work. Always an inspiration.