19 February 2012

Samuel (ספר שמואל)

The Five Books of
Moses (Torah)
The Eight Books of
the Prophets (Neviim)
The Eleven Books of
the Writings (Kesuvim)

1.      Genesis
6.      Joshua
14.  Psalms
2.      Exodus
7.      Judges
15.  Proverbs
3.      Leviticus
8.      Samuel
16.  Job
4.      Numbers
9.      Kings
17.  Song of Songs
5.      Deuteronomy
10.  Isaiah
18.  Ruth

11.  Jeremiah
19.  Lamentations
12.  Ezekiel
20.  Ecclesiastes
13.  The Twelve (minor prophets) Trei-Assar (1. Hosea, 2. Joel, 3. Amos, 4. Obadiah, 5. Jonah, 6. Micah, 7. Nahum, 8. Habakkuk, 9. Zephaniah, 10. Haggai, 11. Zechariah and 12. Malachi)
21.  Esther
22.  Daniel
23.  Ezra/Nehemia
24.  Chronicles

The Book after the Book of Judges in the Christian Old Testament (OT) is Ruth. Since I am writing about the Hebrew Bible, the sequence I follow here would be that of the Jewish Bible and not that of the OT. As I mentioned earlier, the number of Books in the Protestant OT and Hebrew Bible are the same, the difference being only in the sequence of arrangement of chapters. 

With 1,505 verses, distributed across 55 chapters, the Book of Samuel (Tamil: சாமுவேல்) is one of the largest in the Hebrew Bible. In the Christian Bible, the Book of Samuel is divided into two, 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel. Also divided are the two other books in the OT, namely Kings and Chronicles. The reason why these Books were split into two is obvious from their size or the number of verses they contain. But strangely, Psalm, the largest book in the Bible with more than 2,400 verses, has been spared without any attempt to partition it. 

Traditionally the Book of Samuel is attributed to Prophet Samuel himself, but modern scholarship attributes the work to many independent authors. The Book of Samuel begins with Yahweh’ selection of Samuel as the chosen prophet, conflict between Israelites and Philistines, anointment of Saul as Israel’s king despite prior warnings, failure of Saul as a king and his replacement by David, story of the stolen Ark by Philistines and its restoration to Israel, David fleeing to Philistines and his return to Jerusalem, David’s great sin, the birth of Solomon and the establishment of kingdom of David and his family in Jerusalem for years to come.

(1) Don’t be misled by looks

The most famous episode in the Book of Samuel is the story of David facing Goliath. The Israelite Lord, having decided to replace King Saul with an anointed one, asks Prophet Samuel to go to Bethlehem for an interview of Jesse’s sons.  Jesse is asked to parade her sons one by one in front Samuel who, impressed by Eliab’s look, thinks that he must be the anointed one.  But the Lord says to Samuel….

Do not consider his appearance or his height,
          for I have rejected him.
The LORD does not look at the things people look at.
People look at the outward appearance,
          but the LORD looks at the heart.
 (Samuel 1: 16:7)

அவன் தோற்றத்தையும், உயரத்தையும் பார்க்காதே;
ஏனெனில் நான் அவனைப் புறங்கணித்துவிட்டேன்.
மனிதர் பார்ப்பது போல் நான் பார்ப்பதில்லை.
மனிதர் முகத்தைப் பார்க்கின்றனர்;
ஆண்டவரோ அகத்தைப் பார்க்கின்றார்.

Dravid targets Goliath's eye with the sling
The message here loud and clear: That is, one should not be carried away by the impressive and commanding look of a person. There is this Oriental proverb which says “Trust not to appearance! The drum which makes much noise is filled with wind”. While the Biblical verse and Oriental proverb counsel us against overrating the ability of a person based on impressive looks, Tirukkural asks not to underestimate a person with unimposing stature. Seeing the boyish looking David standing in front of him with a sling and stone, Goiath disparages him.உருவுகண்டு எள்ளாமை வேண்டும்” (Despise not by looks!) says Thiruvalluvar in Thiukkural (667).  And why shouldn’t one despise a person by his looks? Because “even linchpins hold in place the wheels of mighty chariots!” (Kural 667).

After overcoming the mighty Goliath, David the youngest son of Jesse, finally gets anointed as per the wish of the Lord. The Qur’an also recapitulates the story of David and Goliath in Sura “The Cow” (2: 249-251).

(2) Triumphant returns of the prophets

"No prophet is accepted in his hometown” said Jesus (Luke 4:24). Mathew (13:57) also records the same statement attributed to Jesus in these terms: "Only in his hometown and in his own house is a prophet without honor" (see also John, 4:44). We can see this in the lives of many prophets of the Semitic world. The Book of Samuel narrates how Prophet David was forced to leave Israel and flee to Philistine. This story has some interesting resemblance to the history of Prophet Muhammad himself. The Quran goes on record to say that many messengers have been rejected by their own people in the past, and they all showed considerable patience when rejected and persecuted until divine help came to them (Quran 6: 34; 16:110). In Samuel, we see David fleeing Jerusalem to protect himself from prosecution by King Saul.

But David thought to himself,
“One of these days I will be destroyed by the hand of Saul.
Best thing I can do is to escape to the land of the Philistines.
Then Saul will give up searching for me anywhere in Israel,
And I will slip out of his hand.” (1 Samuel, 27:1-2)

The resemblances between the emigration and return of David and Muhammad have been outlined in the following comparative table:

Prophet David
Prophet Muhammad

Asylum with neighbours

Flight to Philistine: “So David and the six hundred men with him left and went over to Achish son of Maok king of Gath. David and his men settled in Gath with Achish. Each man had his family with him, and David had his two wives: Ahinoam of Jezreel and Abigail of Carmel, the widow of Nabal. When Saul was told that David had fled to Gath, he no longer searched for him.”
(1 Samuel, 27: 1-4)

Flight to Medina: While conveying the message of Islam to his follow Arabs, Prophet Muhammad found the going tough. When he discovered the pagan Arab’s plan to assassinate him, Muhammad fled to the north, from Mecca to the city of Yathrib, now called Medina. Like David, many of his followers also followed him to Medina. With this migration, called "Hijra" in Arabic, begins the history of Islam and the calendar of Muslims. 
Raiding for booty
“Now David and his men went up and raided the Geshurites, the Girzites and the Amalekites. (From ancient times these peoples had lived in the land extending to Shur and Egypt.). Whenever David attacked an area, he did not leave a man or woman alive, but took sheep and cattle, donkeys and camels, and clothes. Then he returned to Achish.” (Samuel 1: 27:8)
Once in Medina, Muhammad and his companions indulged in a series of raids on caravans en route to Mecca. The booties of such raids were then shared among them. It seems such acts of violence were justified those days, more so in this case, as it was considered a method of retaliation against the very same Meccan tribes of Quraish who forced Muhammad and his followers to emigrate from their native land.
Years in exile

To save himself from Saul, David and his followers flee from Israel to the Philistines. Protected by the Philistine king, spend about a year and a half. Saul naturally stopped searching for David.
Prophet Muhammad spent eight years in Medina helping the infighting Yathribites to lead a life of coexistence through joint treaties and agreements. Since Medina was about 340 km away, the Meccans did not pursue with their objective of assassinating Muhammad.  
Return of the prophets

Return to Israel: Just like how Prophet Muhammad secured the control of Mecca with the help of Medinites, the Philistines defeat the Israelites. The only difference being that Philistines did not trust David being included in their army as he was an Israelite himself (fearing that he might turn against the Philistines during the war)
Return to Mecca: When the time was ripe, Muhammad summoned all his warrior Muslims in Medina to march towards Mecca.  The Quraish were overpowered and unlike the defeat of Israelites by Philistines, there was hardly any bloodshed. Thus Muhammad and his followers conquered Mecca and its sanctuary. Since a general amnesty was given to all people, most of them eventually accepted his message and became Muslims.

(3) The Ark of Jews, Takht of Sikhs and Guru-āsana of Vaishnavites

The Jewish Ark of the Covenant is a receptacle or cabinet in the Tabernacle which held the Tablets of Ten Commandments. In Hebrew the Tabernacle is called ‘mishkan (משכן‎) which means “dwelling place" (of God). It was sort of a mobile temple that Jews carried with them wherever they went during their travels till they built their temple in the promised land. Once the Temple got built in Jerusalem, the Ark found its place there (1 Kings, 8:1-11). Following the destruction of the temple and subsequent establishment of synagogues (Jewish place of worship), the Ark in them now holds the Torah scrolls.

The Bible says the Ark was built according to Moses’ prophetic vision in Mount Sinai. As described in Exodus (37: 1-10), the Ark of the Covenant was a chest of Acacia wood, two and one-half cubits long, and one and one-half cubits high (approximately 5x3x3 feet in dimension) overlaid with gold, and embellished with a crown of gold extending around the chest upon the top edge. According to the Bible, the Ark was nothing but a cabinet containing the two tablets of stone which Moses put there (1 Kings, 8: 9). The Qur’an also mentions of the Ark of the Covenant (Arabic: تابوت = Casket) and is said to have contained also the artifacts of Moses and Aaron (Quran 2:248).
Takht in a Gurudwara
Ark of the Jews

Guru-asana in Neo-Vaishnavism, Assam
(Photo by Ashley Baker, IFAW)
There are parallels of similar holy structures holding the sacred scriptures in other religious traditions. The Ark as the holiest spot in a synagogue of Jews could be compared to the Guru-āsana in the Mani-kūt of Satrās of Vaishnavaits in Assam or to the Takht or Manji Sahi in a Gurudwāra of Sikhs.  The Sikhs’ sacred scripture the Guru Grant Sahib is placed on this raised platform (Takht, meaning "throne") under a canopy (Chanani or Palki), and covered with an expensive cloth when not being read. In the Neo-Vaishnavite Satrās in Assam, the shrine where the scripture (Keertana) is placed on the Guru-āsana (guru’s seat) is called Mani-kūt (meaning “Jewel hut”). This cubicle, attached to the public hall called Nāmghar, is usually bit higher and considerably smaller in size. The fact that this word Mani-kūt sounds very much to the Tamil word “Mani-kūndu” (மணிக்கூண்டு) has already been pointed out by Sarma (1991). The Guru-āsana, is a seven-tiered, triangular, wooden throne adorned by the tortoise-elephant-lion motif and other decorative woodwork (*).

Unlike the Guru-āsana and Takht, the Ark of the Jews is an important symbol of Jewish covenant with their Lord Yahweh, something that was emphasized during the formative stages of Judaism. The Jews carried this Ark set in the portable Tabernacle wherever they went during their periods of wandering in wilderness in search of their promised land.

The Bible records the story of the missing Ark and its eventual restoration in Samuel. The first book of Samuel mentions the sequences of how the Philistines took away the Ark after their victory (Chapter 4), provoking the Lord’s anger (Chapter 5) which led to its return to Israel after seven months of absence (Chapter 7).

After the Philistines had captured the ark of God, they took it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. Then they carried the ark into Dagon’s temple and set it beside Dagon.
(1 Samuel: 5:1-2)
And the ark of the LORD was in the country of the Philistines seven months. And the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners, saying: 'What shall we do with the ark of the LORD? Declare unto us wherewith we shall send it to its place.’ 
 (1 Sam 6:1-2)

When I read this narrative of stolen Ark, I am reminded of the history of the black stone (Arabic: الحجر الأسود) which was stolen during one of the raids conducted on the Ka’ba following the advent of Islam in Arabia. The sacred black stone occupies the corner of the Ka’ba, the holy sanctuary of Muslims. According to historian Al-Juwayni, the black stone was returned twenty-three years later, in 952 (*).

All the religions that I have discussed so far this section - namely Judaism, Sikhism, Islam and Assamese Neo Vaishnavism - are strongly monotheistic and forbid veneration of any idol. Yet we see in them the symbolization of a structure and its paraphernalia as possible alternatives to the idol. It seems that mankind needs to idolize something in one form or the other for worship. In this context, it is pertinent to quote what Swami Vivekananda wrote on the condemnation of others' form of worship as idol worship:

The Christians think that when God came in the form of a dove it was all right,
            but if He comes in the form of a fish, as the Hindus say,
            it is very wrong and superstitious.
The Jews think if an idol be made in the form of a chest with two angels sitting on it,
            and a book on it, it is all right,
            but if it is in the form of a man or a woman, it is awful.
The Mohammedans think that when they pray,
            if they try to form a mental image of the temple with the Ka’ba,
            the black stone in it, and turn towards the west, it is all right,
            but if you form the image in the shape of a church it is idolatry.
This is the defect of image worship.
(Complete Works, Volume 4: The Chief Symbols).

(4) David’s sin of coveting neighbour’s wife

Adultery in most cultures, especially in India, is often connected to the affairs with or desires for others’ wives. In Indian literary tradition, two kinds of adultery are banished: (i) visiting a prostitute and (ii) desiring neighbor’s wife. More than visiting a prostitute, relationship with other’s wife is considered an unforgivable sin. Tamil classics Thirukkural and Nalatiyar have one chapter each devoted entirely on the subject of ‘not desiring neighbour’s wife”. This moral dictum has been reiterated in many other literary works of different religious including Hinduism, Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, Islam etc. (see Nitisātakam, 52; Job 31:9; Hovamol, 115; Guru Grant Sāhib p. 425, 472; Dhammāpada, 309) . One of the best poems on this ethical principle I have come across is from Nālatiyār: 

Enters with fear; comes out with fear;
Enjoys with fear, keeps secret with fear;
Every minute he lives with fear and fear;
Still why does he desire another’s wife?
(Nalatiyar 83) [Translator: Pl. M. Annamalai]

Sometimes the virtue of ‘not desiring another’s wife’ is projected as the foremost important of all virtues. “You may trespass the bounds of other virtues, but not the bounds of another’s wife” (Kural 150) said Thiruvalluvar in Thirukkural. The foundation story of one of the world’s most popular epic, the Rāmāyana, is built on the evils of Rāvan desiring Rāma’s wife Sita. Even prophets seem to have fallen into the trap of desiring another man’s wife. We see this in the Bible as well the Qur’an.  In the case of the Bible, it was the relationship David had with Uriah’s wife Bathsheba, and in the Qur’an it was the marriage of Zayd’s wife Zaynab to Prophet Muhammad. Though both are a result of desire to get others’ wives, there are some basic differences. 

Samuel 2 records the story of how David sees from his rooftop neighbor Uriah’s wife Bathsheba bathing and succumbs to his physical desires of attaining her (2 Sam 11:2). In spite of knowing that she is Uriah’s wife, David prevails upon her (2 Sam 11:4), makes her pregnant (2 Sam 11:5) and even gets her husband Urial killed in a battle (2 Sam 11:15-17) only for the sake of marrying her (2 Sam 11:27) David later repents and gets away with a minor punishment from the Lord (2 Sam 12:18). In essence David violated one of the TEN COMMANDMENTS which is “You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbour” (Exodus 20:17).

In the case of Prophet Muhammad, the wife was not neighbour’s but that of his own adopted son. It was the Prophet himself who arranged Zaynab's marriage to his adopted son Zayd, who had earlier been a slave. When Zayd divorced her so that the Prophet could marry her, there seem to have been some public opposition to this act since adopted sons were considered the same biological sons. The Qur’an, however, justified this act by stating that adopted sons are not like biological sons. 

Then when Zayad had dissolved his marriage with her (Zainab),
            we joined her in marriage to thee:
In order that there may be no difficulty to the believers
            in the matter of marriage of the wives of their adopted sons.
(Sura 33:37)

All these only go on to show that prophets are also humans. They make mistakes, some repent and some don’t. 


Sarma, S. 1991. A Few Aspects of Assamese Literature and Culture.  Assam Sahitya Sabha. Pages 36-71


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