Friday, July 22, 2016

First and Second Samuel by Eugene Peterson (Book Review #32 of 2016)

First and Second Samuel (Westminster Bible Companion)

I read through this while teaching Sunday school lessons on 1-2 Samuel (specifically The Gospel Project). This is definitely a non-technical commentary, there are not many references and few of them are scholarly in nature-- no deep insights into Hebrew language, history, archaeology, etc. Peterson himself relies on Brueggeman's commentary quite a bit, quoting him often. It is mostly Peterson's thoughts on a text, including some tangents his mind takes him on.

Nonetheless, Peterson's work is helpful in asking questions of the text and in being reminded of its Gospel implications. 1-2 Samuel is ostensibly a biography of David, but it is really about God's sovereignty in the hidden ways of everyday life. As Brueggeman wrote, the Bible is "unlaundered history," David is the standard-bearer by which all other kings would be measured and with whom God made a covenant with in continuation of the Adamic-Noahic-Abrahamic-Mosaic covenant. Yet, we see David as afraid as often as we do brave, angry as often as we do pleasant, as sinful as we do sinless. Modern Christians would find reasons for not voting for David for President, nor would he likely pastor a church. How could such a godly man have such a manipulative and dishonorable jerk (his nephew Joab) for his top general that he was seemingly powerless to replace? Yet, David is the "good shepherd" pointing us to the true and better shepherd--Jesus. "David's life is narrated as pivotal in the history of salvation. David's name occurs nearly eight hundred times in the Old Testament, and another sixty times in the New. David's name is taken up a thousand years later as a title for Jesus, 'son of David'" (p. 135). "This is, above all, theological storytelling. It is not, however, theology abstracted from life, as we so often encounter it in our studies and books, but theology embodied in life" (p. 155).

I find 1-2 Samuel (and its parallels) to be among the most difficult books in the Bible to read. There is much "distanciation" between us and the 10th century stories; much is going on we don't understand-- political marriages, territorial disputes, clan rivalries, syncretism, and larger geo-political conflicts that Israel is stuck between. (I read Finkelstein and Silberman's David and Solomon, a treatise on the history and archaeology around the text, in parallel with this commentary.) There are many details to ask questions about. "Culture, whether tenth century B.C. Canaanite or twenty-first century A.D. North American, is the straw used to make the bricks of the city of God" (p. 267).

1 Samuel actually begins with God's sovereign choice of Samuel and then Saul "famously described by Milton as 'He who seeking asses, found a kingdom,' was Israel's first king" (p. 59). Saul was God's answer to Israel's demand for a human king "like other nations." "They suppose that getting rid of God as their king will give them more 'say-so' over their own lives. Every political system before and since, whether monarchy or democracy, socialism or communism, has encouraged that supposition" (p. 71). Saul is the tall and handsome warrior with an insecurity problem. Saul spends many chapters chasing the Lord's next anointed, David, in the wilderness. Peterson rightly notes that: "Everybody, at least everybody who has anything to do with God, spends time in the wilderness, so it is important to know what can take place there" (p. 108). In the wilderness, we learn that David does things counter to the culture-- abstains from killing those whom it seemed obviously justified. Has a desire for God inwardly while Saul has only been concerned about his own outward esteem among the people. "David's actions and words are shaped by his conviction that God is present and active in everything. Saul, in contrast, has little God awareness in who he is and what he does. Political and military considerations from which God has been eliminated dominate his life," (p. 117).

In the relationship between David and Jonathan we see friends who stick closer than brothers. Peterson depicts David's lamenting over Jonathan's death as a "gospel act" that prefigures Jesus weeping at the tomb of Lazarus (p. 143). This is a good quote for this year's election cycle: "Without lament, a nation is gradually but surely dehumanized into a military force or an economic function. If all a nation does is wave its flag in parade or boast of its standard of living, go to war, and make money, it ends up sooner or later a husk. Lament keeps a people in touch with leaders and friends, losses and defeats, limits and suffering, with its humanity. Lament keeps us connected with reality, with the actual, with God" (p. 144). David's kindness to Jonathan's son Mephibosheth fulfills his covenant promise and demonstrates covenant for us.

David's entry into Jerusalem, as told by Matthew, contrasts (likely intentionally) with David's triumphal entrance over the Jebusites in a way I had not seen before. "David and Jesus both enter Jerusalem to establish the rule of God; they both clear the place of those who defile it; but the fate of the 'blind and the lame' is turned around. 'Those whom David hates' are the very ones that Jesus cures" (p. 158).

I thought Peterson's chapter on 1 Samuel 17, the Davidic covenant and David's response to God's desire that David not build the temple, to be quite good. "Christians are characteristically afraid of being caught doing too little for God. But there are moments, far more frequent than we suppose, when doing nothing is precisely the gospel thing to do...But biblical and Davidic not-doing is neither sloth nor stoicism; it is a strategy. When David sat down, the real action started: not David making God a house, but God making David a house" (p. 169-170). Peterson's observation of the actions in the Bathsheba-Uriah chapters is also good.

Peterson also shows parallels in David's fleeing Absalom and the passion of Christ:
At the farthest descent from Jerusalem, deep in the wilderness forest of Ephraim, David's story most clearly anticipates and most nearly approximates the Gospel story, the story of Jesus that extends into our stories, passion stories, stories of suffering, but suffering that neither diminishes nor destroys us, but makes us more human, prayerful, and loving...Both David and the "Son of David" are rejected and leave Jerusalem accompanied by both friends who help and foes who mock; at the darkest place both utter cries of dereliction; the rejection of each "David" is a revolt against God's anointed leader, and the rejections in both instances are unsuccessful David is returned to Jerusalem to resume his rule, and Jesus, raised from the dead, ascends to the "right hand of the Father" to rule forever (p. 226-227). 

The factionalism in David's time after his return after Absalom's death is akin to today's denominationalism:
We are all agreed that we want Jesus to save us from our sins and rule over us from the "right hand of the Father," but then we break up into factions, each group claiming precedent or privilege in being "first." Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic, Baptist and Presbyterian, Evangelicals and Pentecostal, Anglican and Methodist, Mennonite and Quakerand so many others: 287 denominations in North America alone at last count! Everyone, it seems, wants Jesus as sovereign but doesn't want to mingle too intimately with the various peoples over whom he exercises his sovereignty (p. 234). 

Peterson handles the awkward ending to 2 Samuel fairly well, including a look at Psalm 18. The theology of the last chapter is difficult to deal with, so Peterson wisely let's it go but reminds us to take the entire book and text as a whole.

"David's failures and sins will be used to legitimize bad behavior; we read them, rather, as evidence that we don't first become good and then get God. First we get Godand then over a patient lifetime are trained in God's ways...David's life is not separated into private and public, into personal and political, into spiritual and secular. He carries his God-identity into his God-work. What David does is who David is...David does not always obey God, but he always deals with God" (Ps. 255, 257, 264). 
3 stars out of 5.

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