Just this morning I read an article about reading the bible. It suggested that try as we might, the verse numbers, the footnotes, all of the extras that are there to help us understand, they also “clutter up” the story. The sweep of the story, the connections, the form of literature that it is, as well as other factors, can all be lost when we add clarity. As an experiment of sorts, for 1 Samuel 9 online, I choose the option to omit verse numbers and so on. And I just read and kept reading. And it does flow in a more natural story-like way, and the narrative actually explains itself.
For example, we start off with “There was a man of Benjamin….” and any number of bible studies that I have been a part of stop right there and explain that the tribe of Benjamin was a small one and not powerful, and which son of Jacob Benjamin was, and so on. But if you just read, then all of this is in the story, revealed or reminded to the audience in a certain way, with a method. The original folks who listened to this story, of course, were much more familiar than we are with the story of Jacob and the tribes of Israel. Yet, the narrative itself tells those of us who aren’t so familiar what we need to know. It is very curious indeed that for all I say, as most Biblical Storytellers do, to “trust the story” it turns out I haven’t trusted the story as much as I thought I did.
Let’s start with trusting the story, that the narrative has a point to make by starting out in way that feels like folklore or myth — the son of a rich man, Saul, is sent by his father, Kish, with a boy to find some missing donkeys. Not only is Saul the son of a rich man, we are immediately told that he is more handsome than anyone else and taller — “head and shoulders above everyone else”. This is a great start to a tale! And just before this, remember, we read about the Lord and Samuel agreeing, however reluctantly, to give the people a King. Well then! Wouldn’t a King need to be the best, more beautiful, tall, and rich? I think we should be thinking “aha! Saul sounds right kingly if you ask me.”
Saul and the boy head out and travel through the hill country of Ephraim, the land of Shalishah, and eventually Shaalim but did not find the donkeys. I can’t help but wonder how long did this take? Where are these places? And he then passes through the land of Benjamin and reach Zuph. And I have all these questions, but I keep reading and it turns out that Saul has questions about the journey himself. Saul says to the boy who was with him, “Let’s turn back, or my father will stop worrying about the donkeys and worry about us.”
The text addresses the very tension that was building in me as I read — what are you guys doing? Why are you still traveling around looking for donkeys?
When I start to read this out loud, just the first two verses, I cannot stop it from sounding humorous. It feels as if it is meant to be funny, to me. I can imagine other people might tell it differently and maybe since I’m a woman, and of mature years, a story about a rich man and his handsome son just strikes me as immediately eye-rolling and, well, funny. I found my right hand spread up and out with “a Benjaminite” and then my left hand, up and out, “a man of weath” and a little shoulder shrug. These may not be opposites but the coupling strikes my ear as funny, and also as a way the storyteller can immediately signal to the audience that there is something “small” about the tribe of Benjamin and yet that Kish himself and his son are extra-special. And then Saul being extravagantly described, since the Bible really doesn’t describe anyone very much, just seems both funny and fishy to me. It is a signal to the audience, to the reader — something this good-looking must be good, right? Or something this good, might be hollow really?
Of course how one starts out telling a story isn’t necessarily where you end up. But I’m starting with humor. I invite you to read the whole chapter, see what it is like with and without verse numbers and if you think it is funny. I’ll pick up again next time and carry on.
For the glory of God.
(my footnotes: A Short History of Bible Clutter; Bibliotheca (is it different to read on paper verses online? I generally read online but have my study bible open and next to me as well. Is this changing the flow of the narrative?); ESV Reader’s Bible.)