Saul’s lookouts in Gibeah of Benjamin were watching as the multitude was surging back and forth. Then Saul said to the troops that were with him, ‘Call the roll and see who has gone from us.’ When they had called the roll, Jonathan and his armour-bearer were not there. Saul said to Ahijah, ‘Bring the ark of God here.’ For at that time the ark of God went with the Israelites. While Saul was talking to the priest, the tumult in the camp of the Philistines increased more and more; and Saul said to the priest, ‘Withdraw your hand.’ Then Saul and all the people who were with him rallied and went into the battle; and every sword was against the other, so that there was very great confusion. Now the Hebrews who previously had been with the Philistines and had gone up with them into the camp turned and joined the Israelites who were with Saul and Jonathan. Likewise, when all the Israelites who had gone into hiding in the hill country of Ephraim heard that the Philistines were fleeing, they too followed closely after them in the battle. So the Lord gave Israel the victory that day. The battle passed beyond Beth-aven, and the troops with Saul numbered altogether about ten thousand men. The battle spread out over the hill country of Ephraim.
Here we are. Another battle to note who is who, what they carry, who they kill and why. There are Kings in the midst. For me to get to grips with this, I need to zoom out from the micro story to the mega story. I have to zoom out to see more in these books of Samuel – to our Jewish faith relatives, just one book. I need to zoom out to note that it wasn’t Samuel who wrote it all down, zoom out to see that this is not truly history, but a smidgen of history mixed with a great deal of theologising, literary license, and psychologising. The key is “The Lord gave Israel the victory that day.” This is yet another of a multitude of narratives reinforcing the identity of Israel as God’s chosen people. It’s a strong identity, marrow, soul, and centuries deep. It is such a strong identity that it can make us zoom in so close to detail that we miss the zoomed-out view. Out in a distance wide enough to see God in all of God’s graciousness, do we want to hold the idea that God does violence against one to bolster the identity of another? Can we see God choosing to make victors and vanquished? Zoomed in to the horrors which can come in each day, this is a comfortable idea. God will protect me from anyone who could do me damage, and so my identity as God’s child is secure. Yet, I would find it hard indeed to see God as the one who inspired those who have done me actual violence, making me the vanquished one in favour of my abuser’s identity. It is risky taking the mega story over the micro one. So much is to be questioned. Praise God. Each of us is called to deep faith in mystery, with a tenacious hold on the perpetual reality of grace.
Oh God, forgive us when we use you to reinforce our selves. We thank you for our own gifted complexity, yet we confess we often want simplicity in others. You are loving justice in mysterious ways, yet we often want certainties. Remind us that you gift us with power to love beyond our imagining; to be neither victor nor vanquished. Give us grace to trust you, so we can trust ourselves to be loving. Amen.
The Rev’d Elizabeth Gray-King, Education & Learning Programme Officer, member St Columba’s URC, Oxford