Saturday, August 05, 2006

Picnic at the Botanics and 1 Samuel 11-12

Saturday morning, at the end of the work week, is glorious skies and cloudless sunshine. We bounceburst out of our homes, happy and free, shouting,"A picnic! A picnic!" ("Vacate! Vacate!", yells someoneelse,"Fire in the hole!", just to be different and retain some semblance of macho-ness*. But we think, instead, that he means his morning toilet was somewhat explosive.)

(The soundtrack for the car-ride is this:
Jane Herships "Don't Be Afraid, I've Just Come To Say Goodbye (The Ballad of Clementine Jones)"
Mary Lou Lord "I've Figured You Out"
KT Tunstall "On The Other Side Of The World"
Imogen Heap "Hide and Seek"
Imogen Heap "Speeding Cars"
Snow Patrol "Chasing Cars"
Quite a bit of estrogen, no wrinkly Leonard Cohen. So somehow, despite the morose lyrics, the songs sound quite cheerful if chorused at the top of one's voice on a sunny day with the wind in our hair and a well-stocked picnic basket on someone's lap. A VW camper van with red plush upholstery, without Bob Dylan and his garish harmonica, would be a nice extra.)

(Too many estrogen-y singers also gives us this StrawberryShortcake descriptive:)
Messy Sandwich!At the Singapore Botanic Gardens, butterflies dance ahead of us, past the bushy-tailed squirrels rustling in flowering bushes, past the lush morningglory-trellised walkway heavy with fleshy purple, past the fragrance of frangipanis hanging in the air like a thick pink cloud, and onto our usual spot on the undulating lawn, where there is shade under great palm trees. There, there is the laying out of mats and food and drinks. There are straw hats and sunnies. There is a bronzed barechested man, his baseball cap set jauntily, juggling, the red and white skittles winking in the sun. There are rosbif beetroot brie sandwiches wrapped in paper and packets of crisps. There are children running after excited puppies. There are children running away from excited puppies. There are copious amounts of icy drinks. There are lazy games of crocker. There is more cheese and chilled Misiones de Rengo Sauvignon Blanc. There is a contented breeze and quiet reading. There is the faint soundwall of cicadas in the rainforest nearby.
Reading at Botanics
And when the ants find us, by the nasty black battalion, we leave.


Salvation from External Enemies
While we (and the rest of Israel) are wondering at the end of 1 Samuel 9-10 if Saul will fulfil his role as king to save Israel from external enemies and from themselves, Nahash the Ammonite thoughtfully provides Saul with the opportunity to prove himself by besieging Jabesh-gilead (1 Samuel 11:1).

The people of Jabesh-gilead are so certain of defeat, so sure of death at the hands of Nahash that as a last resort, they offer themselves as his vassals (1 Samuel 11:1). But cruel old Nahash wants more than their servitude. He wants to rub salt in their wounds; he wants, literally, to put out their right eyes and thus bring disgrace to all of Israel (1 Samuel 11:2).

Faced with a fate worse than slavery, the people of Jabesh-gilead ask Nahash for a 7-day grace period to find for themselves a saviour. So complacent is the Ammonite that he grants their request, thus making him the forefather of all loser evil dudes in movies who exhibit great reluctance to kill the captive hero/heroine while they can, and instead waste time boasting about their own cunning clever evilness, allowing the heroic sidekick ample opportunity to rescue the captive.

The camera pans to another town, where Saul is coming in from the field behind the oxen (1 Samuel 11:5). He hears of this outrage, and the Spirit of God rushes upon him and he rallies 330,000 men to the Jabesh cause (11:6-9). Together, they overrun the Ammonites and save the people of Jabesh-gilead from their enemies.

This is a great start. Saul shows that he can and will deliver the people under his care; he will go out and fight their battles for them (1 Samuel 8:20).

Salvation from Themselves
What is better is that Saul gives credit to whom it is due. It is the LORD, says Saul, who has worked salvation in Israel today (11:13). For it was the Spirit of God who first moved Saul into action (how different he is from the mousy man hiding amongst the luggage (10:22) or the one who wanted to crawl back to the comfort of home without finding his lost asses (9:5)). It was also the dread of the LORD that fell upon the people so they responded to Saul as they did, turning out as one man to save the people of Jabesh-gilead (11:7-8).

And the people, acknowledging God's ultimate kingship, make Saul king before God. Things are indeed looking up. It looks as if God's people and their king are finally living in a right relationship with God.

But Samuel reminds them of the dark cloud hanging over their heads: in asking for a human king in place of God the divine king, they have rebelled against him. And the judgement for rebellion against God is death and destruction. Oh, perhaps the reason why the people sinned is because Saul was a stumbling block to them. Or was it because, really, God wasn't worthy of his kingship and if the incumbent was of no use, then a revolution, understandably, was in order; a human king would do better than a divine one?

Unfortunately, Saul himself was not the stumbling block. The people agree that since he was a young child serving at the temple, he had neither defrauded the people, nor oppressed them, nor taken anything from any man's hand (1 Samuel 12:3-5).

Even more unfortunately, God was far from unworthy of his divine kingship. Saul reminds the people of the righteous acts the LORD did for the people, of his power and his faithfulness to them: whenever they cried out, whether they were under their Egyptian oppressors or hardpressed by their enemies, it was the LORD who had the heart and the ability to deliver them, so that they could dwell in safety (12:6-11).

The problem is neither with Saul nor with God. The problem is the people themselves: their rebellious hearts, their ungratefulness, their myopia. Time and again, they forgot what God had done for them, and how he had punished them for previous sins and yet, how in great mercy, he delivered them from their enemies when they cried out to him (12:8-11).

So the whole of Israelite history was repetitive cycle of sin, punishment and grace on a linear timeline. And in that cycle, the Israelites, just having rushed past the Sin platform having rebelled against God by wanting to replace him with a human king, are hurtling towards the next stop: Punishment.

Do the people doubt that God is able to punish them? God demonstrates his ability to do so by sending a thunderstorm to destroy their harvest (12:16-17). If the people thought that the growing of the crops, the sure harvest, their daily lives were in their own control and were a matter of no concern to anyone else but themselves, they were surely disabused of that idea in a hurry. God's ability to send thunder and rain in the driest season show that the people are completely dependent on God for everything for he alone controls the world. They, mere creatures, are at his mercy. God is not impotent or ignorant or imaginary. He is very real, omniscient and omnipotent. That is a Very Good Thing To Remember.

The horror of what they've done, their faithlessness despite God's faithfulness, their distrust of God's proven trustworthiness cuts them to the heart. Face to face with the enormity of the evil they perpetuated, the people greatly fear for their lives (12:18). What terrible punishment surely awaits them.

Yet Samuel says,"Do not be afraid" (12:20). Even though they have done this evil, there is a way to escape what they rightfully deserve: fear the LORD and serve him (12:14), follow the LORD their God (12:14) and obey his commandments. God is merciful and patient, not destroying completely like he easily did to the harvest. Because grace is pardon freely given, there is no need for prior punishment, no requirement for purgatory.

However, warns Samuel, if they continue on their current path, if they continue not to obey the voice of God, if they continue to rebel against his commandments (12:15), then there will be no hope left for them. They and their king will be swept away (12:15).

Perhaps this time the people would save themselves much grief and obey God? Perhaps their new king will be able to lead them well and restrain them from doing evil?

See 1 Samuel 13-15.


*A picnic, a picnic
The Smurfs are on their way
To go and have a picnic this bright and breezy day

A picnic, a picnic
We're bringing drinks and food
All Smurfs are in a happy mood

Upfront goes Papa Smurf and then the other Smurfs
And there they all gather merrily singing along
Oh this is such a happy day
[Or something similar. If anyone has the definitive lyrics, please let me know.]

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