The God Who Speaks: In Victory and Defeat
By Br Pablo Rodríguez Jordá, O.P. | Today’s Mass readings from 1 Samuel speak of the defeat of the Israelites at the hands of the Philistines. How could such a catastrophe be reconciled with God’s provident care over his people? Br Pablo answers this question in the first post of our series on the Year of the Word of God.
After the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, which we celebrated last Sunday, the first week of Ordinary Time leads us back to the beginning of the cycle of readings for Mass. In the past, the Epiphany, the Baptism of the Lord and the Wedding at Cana were celebrated together on the 6th of January, as the momentous events in Christ’s revelation to the world. In the current lectionary, the readings following the feast of the Baptism of the Lord still echo this theme, and so at daily Mass this week we recall the opening scenes of Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom in the Gospel of Mark. Similarly, the Old Testament readings for the first three weeks of Ordinary Time will take us through a foundational episode in the history of salvation: the rise and enthronement of David as King of Israel, narrated in the 1st and 2nd books of the prophet Samuel.
Thus, since Monday we have heard how Hannah, despite her infertility, found favour with God and conceived Samuel, whom she handed over in thanksgiving to the priests of the ancient sanctuary at Shiloh. Today, the narration shifts to the Ark of the Covenant, the true protagonist of the following chapters. The Ark, a ‘bonsai temple’ constructed on the Lord’s instructions to Moses, had been carried through the wilderness containing the tables of stone on which the finger of God had written the Law. It was for this reason a sacred object, a token of God’s presence among his people, and was often taken into battle, without which hope of victory was uncertain. This the elders of Israel agree on this occasion, when the army is defeated a first time at the hands of the Philistines.
However, against what we might have expected, the Israelites suffer a second defeat, and the Ark is captured by the enemy. The narration presents this disaster as a punishment for the sacrileges perpetrated by Hophni and Phineas, the sons of the priest Eli, who had been unlawfully taking advantage of the offerings brought to the sanctuary at Shiloh, thus stirring up God’s wrath. Although Scripture often expresses the idea that victory comes from God alone and not from the might of armies, Israel’s defeat might strike us as an unjustified corrective measure. Why should the whole people be punished on account of a few? Despite this, it is also possible to see in this story a paradoxical sign of hope, precisely as the subsequent narrative reveals how the calamity caused by the priest’s two sons is integrated into God’s provident designs.
In the following chapters (5-6) the Ark manifests its power behind enemy lines, not without a light touch of satire. It was customary in the Ancient Near East to seize the idols of the conquered enemy’s gods and to install them in the victor’s temple, as a token of dominion over the captive people. However, the Philistines discover to their surprise that the Israelites worship God without images. Instead, the Ark is taken into the Philistine temple, and on two consecutive days, as if in allusion to the two defeats suffered by the Israelites, the icon of their god Dagon appears prostrate before the Ark when in the morning the priests access the temple. Illnesses and plagues soon break out among the captors, so that the Ark is handed over from town to town, almost as a cursed object, until it returns to Israel.
Moses and Joshua in the Tabernacle, by J. J. Tissot (c. 1900)
This constitutes a remarkable statement of the power of Israel’s God, which does not wane with the defeats of his people, but rather is able to use the enemy’s triumph to carry out his designs. To this thought the people of Israel returned often in moments of national crisis, especially after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC and the Exile which seemingly brought an end to the might of the God of Israel. Even in the face of defeat, there were reasons for hope: God would still carry out his will. Moreover, it is possible to see in this a foreshadowing of the Great Defeat that began the history of Christianity, when Jesus was handed over to sinners and died on a Cross, and his disciples were dispersed. God’s power was equally manifested in bringing Christ’s body back to new life; a body which had previously shown its power as an instrument of such wonders and miracles that people approached Jesus merely hoping to touch his garments and so be healed.
Whereas the Ark of the Covenant had struck the Philistines with plagues, in today’s Gospel Jesus appears as the healer of Israel, yet still not openly, but rather commanding the leper to maintain the strictest silence, perhaps, as some Church Fathers entertained, because he deemed better to believe with spontaneous faith better than moved by the hope of benefits. In one and another story then we are granted a glimpse of the fact that God does not necessarily act to bring about worldly victories. Rather, he seeks first to stir our faith in him alone, and in his lordship over our history, even in moments of dejection and confusion, even in the darkness of defeat.
Image: The Ark of the Covenant (Creative Commons)
The year 2020 has been declared a year to reflect on the importance of the Scriptures in our lives as Christians, coinciding with the 1600 years of the death of St Jerome and the 10th anniversary of Verbum Domini, Pope Benedict XVI’s Apostolic Exhortation on the Word of the Lord. Here you can find more information about activities coming up in the dioceses of England and Wales.