Saturday, April 10, 2010

Who Else?” A Mother’s Midrash On 1 Samuel 5-12

Shay Robertson
A Mother's Midrash

You shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughter to his son, and you shall not take his daughter for your son, for he will cause your child to turn away from Me and they will worship the gods of others.
Deuteronomy 7:3-4.(NSRV)

The Law tells us that the faith of the Chosen People must pass from mother to daughter. And it tells us why.  But G-D, rarely gives us a law without giving us an example to remind us of His reasons. Deuteronomy tells us what to do, or not to do.  That is the Law. But it is in 1Samuel, that the Holy One, Blessed be He, tells us why: that is Love.”

This is a story that does not reflect well on the Philistines, not that there are many that do.  They have taken possession of the Ark of the Covenant.  It is, you remember, an elaborate golden box that contains the fragments of the word of G-D to his people Israel, as it was handed down to us at Sinai.  The Philistines have taken it as a spoil of war.

They took it home with them, first to Ashdod.  Now Ashdod was a major Philistine town, which sat a few miles from the sea east of Jerusalem.  In this town they had a large statue of a god named Dagon.  He was a Canaanite god of grain who had been adopted by the Philistines as their own.[1] Already, you see the Philistines are looking pretty silly; you may remember what they clearly forgot:  the God of Israel has not historically been very keen on sacrifices of grain (Gen 4:5). So, the Philistines placed the Ark in the temple next to the statue and went to bed.  When they woke, the statue had been tipped over and was face down in the dirt in front of the Ark.  It must have looked to everyone as if Dagon were worshiping the God of Israel. Embarrassed, they righted Dagon but the next morning, there he was again, this time his head had fallen off and his hands were broken away. This was sufficiently repulsive a sight to have discouraged anyone from stepping on the threshold there again.[2]  But that was just the beginning of what the Ark was to bring to the Philistines.  Almost immediately, there erupted among the people of Ashdod, a plague of boils that they were helpless to heal.[3] They threw up their hands in dismay and began to run wild with fear and panic.  Like Dagon, they had lost the usefulness of their hands and their heads.  Finally, the people of Ashdod shipped the Ark to another Philistine city.

The Ark travelled from one city to the next, five great cities in all. One after another, the Philistine cities were struck with boils, panic and death with the arrival of the Ark.  Finally, the Philistines called out to their lords to get rid of the Ark of the God of Israel because it was killing them (1 Sam 5:11)!

And so the lords of the Philistines assemble, along with priests and diviners. These lords and intellectual elite were not the proletariat screaming for release.  No, indeed, they have a prize in the Ark and they are not in any hurry to give it back if there is no reason to do so.  Someone must prove that the source of the plague on their people is the Ark.  But how to do that?  It is a scene one can easily imagine:

"We've all be struck with boils and chaos and death whenever we take possession of the Ark of the Covenant," some one of them must have said.
"Likely that is just a coincidence," says another.
"Oohhhh…," says one of the diviners, "I think the God of Israelites wants his box back."
The lords cross their arms over their chests and look around skeptically. "What if we don't want to give back the Ark?"
Here the diviners and the priests shake their heads. "Remember what became of Pharaoh when he negotiated with the God of Israel.  He was stubborn, he was made to look a fool and ultimately, he lost."
"Weren't there boils in that case, too,” one asks.
Another nods, "Bears a striking resemblance…."
The first priest shrugs and says, "You can see how G-d would use it again, after all, it worked the first time…"
The lords hear these words and look from one to another: "So, if we give back the box, the plague will cease?"
"I think so," says the diviner. “I think so….”
But nothing is easy between the Philistines and the God of Israel.  The lords lean back in their chairs and say, "Prove it."

 Here's where things get a little silly, and when things get silly, that's when we should begin to ask ourselves just exactly why. The priests are assigned to make a test to see if the God of Israel really, really wants his Ark back.[4] Their test, therefore, should incorporate as many obstacles as it possibly can.  These are the instructions of the priests; the men who were expected to best understand and know how to please G-D:

 "Make a new cart and load it with the Ark and guilt offering."[5]
The Philistines made a guilt offering: gold "tumors" representing the boils with which the Philistines had been cursed, and "mice" representing the damage done to the land under the Philistines. There were five of each of these, one for each of the cities to which the Ark had travelled.[6]  The Ark, as we have said, is golden, very heavy and elaborate.  Further, it contains pieces of stone slabs.  Who knows what something like that weighs?  This, all this gold, all these articles, plus the Ark and the tablets, all of this, they loaded into the cart.

"Get two milk cows."
Why two? Remember that these are men devising this test; they believe that the two cows will argue, fight and pull away from one another.

"These cows should never have known a yoke."
A cow who has never pulled a cart will not know what to do, will balk and fight in its traces.

"And put away their calves where they cannot see them." 
Here we see what the priests are really about.  What mother could stand to pull away from her dependent child?  What mother can embark on a journey not knowing where her child is or that it is in safety?[7] The weight of the contents, the power of gravity, this only holds the cart in place.  It is the urgency of the mothers to return to their calves which will turn the cart backward from its path. Here is the coups de gras for the priests; the greatest of all the obstacles they have dreamed up.  The only force that they can imagine more powerful than the will of G-D must be the maternal instinct.

"If the cows can take the cart all the way to Bethshemesh without turning off the path, then we will know that it is G-D's will to return the Ark and the curse will be lifted."
We have to pause to wonder what would have happened if the test had not worked.  Imagine the priests and diviners standing with the lords covered in boils and watching attentively while two milch cows pulled a heavy cart off the road and meandered aimlessly into a field.  However amusing that sight might have been to G-D, it was not what occurred.

All was done just as the priests prescribed and the cows walked the long, straight road to Bethshemesh.  It says in the text that they were crying (6:12). To be sure those mother cows were crying, but they arrived, never having left the path, never having turned back.  When they arrived in the field at Bethshemesh, the people of Israel rejoiced, burned the cart and sacrificed the cows.

 So, when we ask why “the faith of our fathers” passes through the mother, I have only one reasonable answer to give: “Who else?”

The Philistines took two mother cows; they separated them from their calves and took those calves out of their protective sight.  They yoked these cows together; they hitched them to a heavy cart and set them an impossible task.  One cow alone could never have moved that cart.  But these are two cows, they were women pulling together; the yoke, the work, the two, together. They would have to have faith in one another and in the community of their companionship.  They would have to have faith in G-D, for it is written that among women:
Where you go, I will go;
   where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
   and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die—
   there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
   and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!
(Ruth 1:16)

They left behind their suckling calves.  Their children would be hungry unless another mother was found for them.  There was no assurance that they would ever see their children again, or that their children would survive. Still, they leaned into their burden, and into one another, depending on the maternal instinct in others to protect their young.  And they depended on G-D, just as Jochebed trusted that her only son would be protected by whoever plucked him from the river:
When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him. (Exod 2:3).

They cried on the path as they walked away from their children as everything in them cried out to return to their young.  But the path had been set before them by G-d; they would have to have faith to walk it.  They would have to have the faith of Hagar:
When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, ‘Do not let me look on the death of the child.’ And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.’ Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink
(Gen 21:15-19).

In the end, they arrive at Bethshemesh, having completed the task they were set at great personal cost, and they are sacrificed. They are killed, right there and their essence rises up to heaven as a prayer. The mission of motherhood is one of sacrifice:
Then they journeyed from Bethel; and when they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel was in childbirth, and she had a difficult labour. When she was in her difficult labour, the midwife said to her, ‘Do not be afraid; for now you will have another son.’ As her soul was departing (for she died), she named him Ben-oni, but his father called him Benjamin. So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), and Jacob set up a pillar at her grave; it is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day.(Gen 35:16-20)

This story is sometimes called “the Exodus story of the Ark.”[8]  Let me ask you something, when you think of the Exodus, you imagine Moses and Pharaoh, but who packed those houses and children to be ready at a moment’s notice? Who kept kosher in the dessert for forty years?  Who bred, bore and buried the people of G-D all that time?  Mothers: anonymous, insignificant, and utterly reliable. 

Why hitch the cart to cows? Any other animal could have pulled the cart. If He were desperate, if the only way to return the Ark to the people was penguins, G-D would have worked it out. But G-D is never desperate, and He always a poet.  He chose milch cows: mothers.

Our faith passes through mothers because this is the preferred method of G-D for insuring that the covenant is carried from one generation to the next. Mothers, grandmothers and sisters, a community of people uniquely endowed with those qualities that are required to keep a faith community alive:
Together overcoming the laws of nature,
Trusting their welfare to one another,
Cleaving together in suffering,
And sacrificing themselves in the end,
As an act of worship and as an act of love.

When G-D wished to pass is Word on to His Chosen people, who could he trust with the task?  The answer, it seems to me, came to Him with a shrug: “Who else?”

Works Referenced
Birch, Bruce, C., “The First and Second Books of Samuel” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume II (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998) 110-114, “Birch.”
“Rashi’s Commentaries,”cv. Shmuel 1, Chabad.Org, (accessed 4/24/09), “Rashi.”
The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Volume 4 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2009), s.v. “Mother,” Patricia K. Tull, ed., “Tull.”
The New Oxford Annotated Study Bible, Third Edition, “Oxford.”

[1] Oxford, 406.
[2]  Oxford, 406
[3]  Very likely the tumors were bubonic plague, which was common on the coast and frequently associated with the expression “the heavy hand of God” (Birch).
[4] Rashi tells us: “This is for the test. Since these cows are not capable of pulling a load, and furthermore, they will low after their young, if the Ark will have the power to enable them to pull it by themselves, we shall know that He wrought this upon us” (Rashi).
[5] This would be in keeping with the requirement that an offering be new and unblemished (Tull).
[6]  V. 18 indicates that there were more than five, that there were enough to represent “all of the cities of the Philistines belonging to the five lords.”
[7] “The portrayal of mothers in biblical narrative is complex... unlike men, women are depicted as without ambivalence toward their parental roles… “ (Tull, 155)
[8] There is a prevalence of Exodus language and imagery in these verses which supports the interpretation of this episode as an “Exodus Story” for the Ark:  the priests determine that the Ark can’t be sent back “empty handed” (Exodus 3:21); the seven months during which the Philistines possessed the Ark are reminiscent of the 7 days of the first plague against Egypt (Exodus 7:25); the plan to return the Ark is meant to “give glory to God” (6:5b) which parallels the “gaining glory” in Exodus 14:4. (Birch)

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