How Did Things Get To This Point?
Henri Le Chat Noir

Sunday Night Journal — April 15, 2012

An Unexpected Vision

The past couple of weeks have been difficult at work, due to the departure of someone who not only was responsible for a lot of things that I don’t know much about but who will probably be impossible to replace. I should be working nights and weekends to try to compensate for her absence, but am stubbornly refusing to do so. Long hours are to some extent part of the package when you work in information technology, but I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m not willing to sacrifice for my employer what little time I have for other things.

I was very much looking forward to the weekend, and when I arrived at home I got an entirely unexpected vision of beauty. The picture below is of the street or road that I live on. “Street” for me implies pavement, and the pavement ends a little before my house. The street comes down a short but fairly steep hill, where the pavement ends, and takes a right turn before reaching my house. There are woods all around, and you can’t see beyond the turn. This is the view you get when you come around the turn.


That’s my mailbox, driveway, and red 1992 Volvo (for which I paid $3000 five years ago, a pretty good investment as it has served me reasonably well). The orange traffic cone presumably belongs to the city; I don’t know how it got there. At the end of the road there’s a path through some trees, and then Mobile Bay. Apart from the presence of my car, this is the way things looked when I came around that turn at about 6:30pm on Friday. The picture was taken a few minutes later, and I’m including it so that you can better imagine what I saw: four children running down the road to the bay.

They were, I guess, ten or eleven years old, three girls and one boy. I’ve met the boy, who lives with his apparently single mother in one of the condominiums a couple of blocks away. I don’t recall having seen the girls before. The girls all had long hair and were wearing jeans or shorts and light blouses or t-shirts, the boy has thick curly hair and was wearing shorts and a t-shirt. When I saw them they were about even with where my car is parked. The last of the group, a girl with light brown hair, heard my car and stepped off into the grass, while the others kept going. Then she saw that I was slowing down and ran to catch up with the others. I could hear them calling and laughing to each other. I stopped, more or less where I took this picture a few minutes later, and watched them till they disappeared into the woods.

I realize as I write this that it’s going to be impossible for me to communicate to you how beautiful they were, and how they moved me: their freshness, their gladness, their seemingly effortless vitality, their grace and freedom. There is a point toward the end of childhood where the body and mind have attained a certain maturity but have not yet fallen into the fears and lusts and longings of adolescence, which seem to stay with us in some degree for the rest of our lives. I found myself wishing they could remain as they were forever. But that’s to wish that they never complete the journey. They made me very happy for a little while, and I said a prayer for them.

1 Samuel by Francesca Aran Murphy

I had planned to write a full review of this book today, but have changed my mind for two reasons. First, the weekend has been busier than I expected. Second, I mentioned to someone in email last week that I was planning to review it, and he asked what publication I was reviewing it for. So I started thinking, well, why not take a bit more time with it, and see if I can place it with Touchstone or some other publication, because I think the book merits the attention. I don’t know how many subscribers Touchstone has, but I’m sure it’s more than the number of people who read this blog. I’m therefore going to make this just a quick first draft of what will be a somewhat longer review.

I don’t know much about biblical scholarship, but this book strikes me as being exactly the way it ought to be done. I should admit that I actually have...let us say low expectations of it, because as a discipline it seems to have played a significant role over the past 150 years or so in undermining Christian faith. It is with a certain weariness and dread that I hear a homilist open his discussion of a scripture reading with “What Matthew (or Mark or Luke or John...) is trying to tell us here is...” What follows is likely to discard the literal meaning of the text in favor of some psycho-literary lesson, possibly of dubious value.

Dr. Murphy does not do this at all. In fact the book seems to engage in a sort of running argument with what I understand to be the conventional literary and historical approaches: the literary one which is all too literary, in that it treats the text as mere literature, the historical one which purports to sit in highly skeptical judgment of its factual truth. This book instead starts with the presumption that scripture means what it says, and that when it clearly treats events as having really happened it is not trafficking in myth and legend (or fiction). Most importantly, it presumes that scripture is intelligible, that the people who put it down were not fools or idiots—nor, on the other end of scholarly mistake, were they novelists, carefully crafting a narrative for literary and theological effect. It takes the biblical author’s historical situation and way of looking at the world as, yes, substantially different from our own, but, no, not so different as to be unintelligible. In short, it sets out to explain, not to explain away.

Broadly speaking, it is an extended and focused effort to bridge the gap between the biblical world and the contemporary believer. In the best tradition of modern theology, it makes ready use of modern discoveries in history and archaeology and languages, but it does not turn these tools against the text. And it doesn’t assume the necessity of what I have always, as a completely unschooled layman, regarded as the suspect practice of resolving disjunctures in the text by assuming them to be the work of multiple hands, in this case with differing agendas. Apparently it is widely held among scholars that the stories of Samuel and Saul, which seem at times to support and at times to condemn the Israelites’ desire for a king, must intermingle the writings of pro and anti-monarchic parties. But Dr. Murphy, in what strikes me as a genuinely literary and yet orthodox approach, tries to show (if I’ve understood her) that this ambivalence expresses something deeper, something about the possibilities inherent in the situation, something about the ultimately incomprehensible but metaphysically real freedom of both God and man.

An assumption of realism must direct our interpretation of the episode, if we want to read it within Christian tradition. The presupposition that the text is describing something that really happened is a tremendous gift to the historical biblical critic. It hinders the formulation of circular hypotheses about source documents and stimulates us to use our historical imagination to try to figure out what is really going on here.

To try to figure out what is really going on here. You would think that would be the primary mission of the scholar but it certainly doesn’t seem to be the case always.

This is not the sort of thing I ordinarily read, and with my chronic difficulty in concentrating I had to work at getting started in it. Once I’d gotten fifty or pages or so in, though, it became fascinating, though never easy; every page is dense with ideas and facts and references to other commentaries, from ancient times until the present. I’m somewhat in awe of the labor involved in the writing of it, not to mention the erudition manifested throughout. I really can’t imagine examining any text at such length and in such detail, and to follow it was a mind-stretching experience.

Challenging it is, but not dry. Those who have met Dr. Murphy online won’t be surprised to learn that flashes of wit appear throughout, sometimes most unexpectedly, as in the description of the Ark of the Covenant as a “bonsai temple.” Or the observation that “In the ancient world, they had to fall back on theater, since they did not have Home Box Office.” Nor will they be surprised by a number of references to The Wire and other contemporary dramas.

I haven’t said anything about the actual content of the book being studied, 1 Samuel. If you’re as biblically unlearned as I am, you may not immediately recognize that title as designating the story that begins with the birth of Samuel and ends with the death of Saul. I had never read it from start to finish. It is quite a story, and well worth the time spent reading this commentary on it, which naturally you’ll want to begin by reading 1 Samuel itself, unless you already know it well.

Quite a story indeed. My father, who was a churchgoer but ever inclined to questioning, used to say that the terrible behavior of Biblical figures like Saul and David was an argument for the truth of the Bible, or at least for the fact that the Hebrews believed it to be true: no one attempting to hoodwink or proselytize on behalf of a religion would have so openly exhibited the sins of so many of its major figures. 1 Samuel qualifies as a prime argument for that case.


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We had a sort of vision like that this morning. We were driving down the busy street on which the seminary stands, and we saw standing on the corner a young black boy, about 7 I would guess, with a woman who appeared to be his grandmother. He was wearing an immaculately white raincoat that flared out and reached to his feet which had long, rather full sleeves. He looked absolutely angelic. I had had an extremely grouchy morning up to that point, but after that I felt fine.

I would love to read Francesca's book, but I seem to be taking longer and longer to get through anything. Your review is very tempting, though.


I think I can see that picture.

The books of Samuel are among the great works of world literature. I've dipped into Francesca's commentary on 1 Samuel with great enjoyment, but have not got organized to sit down and read it through.

It's worth the effort. And you're right about Samuel--I'm going to read 2 Samuel now. I think Francesca's take is probably unusual, but it's certainly interesting and persuasive.

It's funny how little the Sunday School version of these stories has to do with the story as a whole. All I remember hearing about Samuel was his being called in the night by the Lord and thinking it was Eli. Didn't hear to much about his career after that.

I read all the historical books about 30 years ago, and then again with Becca. At least, we read a lot of them then. I really enjoyed them just for the story.


I never have read them all. I really should do that.

Maclin, I have had since I first read this SNJ, a very vivid image of these children, particularly the last girl. I know that what I am imagining is not the same as what you saw, but it reminds me so strongly of something that I have seen or read. It's kind of driving me crazy.


I don't know what it might be. If I've seen or read something similar it's not coming to mind now.

Oh no, I didn't think you would. It's either something from the kind of children's book that you probably have not read, or an image of my cousins and my sister and I when we were that age. I really think that's probably what it is.


Thanks very much for the kind and insightful review.

You're welcome. I realized last night that I should have included a link to the publisher's page for the book, which I will add later, but here it is now. I had not read the blurbs--I'm glad to see that I seem to have read the same book as these experts.:-) "She does not discard the modern hermeneutic; rather, she uses it in the service of doing faithful theology for our time."

"an image of my cousins and my sister and I when we were that age." That's interesting, because obviously you could not have seen yourself, and you probably didn't often see them from the same sort of vantage point that I saw these kids, but now in your mind you can see that it would have looked that way.

Not to lower the tone, but you know if you photograph those kids you will be arrested

I didn't have the camera with which the above was taken, but I did have my phone. And believe it or not--well, actually, I'm sure you will believe it--I did think of that.

I considered putting this in a recent SNJ, but never did: one Saturday a month or so ago I was taking one of my dogs out to the street and a couple of little boys, younger than the group Friday, were walking down to the bay. We talked a bit--I think they were asking if it was ok for them to go there--and I found myself thinking "Keep your distance" and feeling wary of talking to them for very long. That's really a sad commentary on the way things are. Under no circumstances would I have allowed them into the house, or probably even the yard.

Maclin, your description of those children had me in tears. Something really struck a chord with me.

Congratulations to Francesca on what sounds like a job well done!

Sounds like I'll have to read the history books again.

"An assumption of realism must direct our interpretation of the episode, if we want to read it within Christian tradition. The presupposition that the text is describing something that really happened is a tremendous gift to the historical biblical critic. It hinders the formulation of circular hypotheses about source documents and stimulates us to use our historical imagination to try to figure out what is really going on here."

Well said.

Those who have met Dr. Murphy online won’t be surprised to learn that flashes of wit appear throughout, sometimes most unexpectedly, as in the description of the Ark of the Covenant as a “bonsai temple.”,/i>


oops! Italics off.

"delightful" was my comment re: the "bonsai temple."

I find the word bonsai inherently funny. I call my cat Pius my 'bonsai tiger'. Something about a totally miniature tree, with everything a tree has, but four inches high, is funny. Like the way twins are funny, and repetitions.

Hmm, I've never thought of twins as funny. Part of what makes "bonsai temple" funny for me is that it's actually a very good description of what the Ark is. It's a bit irreverent, but yet it isn't--it's in the context of discussing the dangerous powers of the Ark, and that is a very good capsule description of why it has those powers. Really, now that I think about it that line well represents the general approach of the book: it's completely respectful without shall I put this?...long-faced, solemn, giving the impression of a conscious effort to be pious. I.e., *real* respect, not forced.

Louise, I guess I did my job if you were moved to tears.:-)

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