6/20/2005

Chana vs. Eli part II: Change from Within

Lechora, the Google's correspondent has a good point in this post entitled A new Orthodoxy ? Not gonna happen .

Reading it put me in the mood to follow up an earlier post that reads this theme into a story in TaNach, namely, I Sam 1 - Chana and Eli. In it, I believe that the tension between the religious establishment and a potential 'threat' is palpable.

In the ensuing chapters, Shmuel's rise is contrasted every step of the way with the fall of Eli's house. What happens with to Eli, though tragic, is a lesson in the failure of a religious establishment. It was guilty of nepotism, exploitation, and complacence. But perhaps the greatest failing - one which is a subtext of these chapters - is the blurring of the lines between the Priesthood and God whom they are enjoined to serve.

For example:
  • 2:13 - the laws of Priestly gifts are called 'Mishpat Ha-kohanim' - paralleling the term used in Devarim 18:3 (as pointed out by Mahar"i Kara), but as a contrast - the Kohanim are taking advantage of their power to take that which isn't within their rights as ordained by the Torah.
  • Their taking of their 'gifts' before the chelev was offered (2:15) is very meaningful. The Torah sees the Matnot Kehuna as Lechem Elokeihem, i.e., when worshippers offer a gift to God, God, in turn, grants it back to His servants, the Kohanim, as 'payment' for their service. This is why the penalties for a non-Kohein eating the matnot kehuna are so much harsher than, say, stealing and eating the First Tithe from the Levi'im. Ve-acamo"l. Here, Eli's sons relate to the matanot as their 'due', threaten to take it by force, and don't wait even for God to 'consume' His share. They've 'cut out the middle man', or have ceased to differentiate between themselves and God. They see themselves as entitled to stand in for God. When the religious establishment begins to see itself as having a monopoly on access to God, exploitation of the naive masses is the next logical step. Though the institutions remain in form, they have begun to crumble.
  • Shmuel's mother keeps inventing othe ways to express her religiosity. In this chapter, she makes clothing for Shmuel. He remains apart from the others as he grows up, and this is his mother's way of guiding him even as he grows up in Eli's court. He is drawing from both Eli and Chana, from the establishment and the rebellion.
  • The first 3 verses of Chapter 3 are highly symbolic - Eli is blind - to what's going on with his sons. The 'candle of God' hadn't yet gone out - i.e., the end hadn't yet arrived, the religious institutions were still 'flickering' (see Radak). The word of God was rare in those days - because why shouldn't it be? People had no access to God. If they wanted, they could make pilgrimages to Eli & co., but it didn't seem to be doing the trick.
  • Perhaps the most surprising element here - a youthful Shmuel hears the word of God - the actual word of God - and mistakes it for Eli! Shmuel, in his own religious expreience, has conflated the word of Eli with the word of God! And had not Eli told him that it was in fact the word of God, Shmuel may have persisted in thinking it was Eli! I wonder what would have happened if Shmuel would have realized right away that it was the word of God - would Eli have believed him? Would Eli have seen him as another threat? Perhaps it HAD to be this way - Eli telling Shmuel that he can relate to God directly, and that Eli no longer needs to mediate.
Eventually, Shuel is responsible for ushering in the davidic era, of helping to forge a unified religious consciousness within Israel, etc. He is able to change things, but not by setting himself up as an alternative authority structure. He was in position to assume the mantle of leadership when the 'old guard' inevitably failed.

I'll hold off from applying this to a contemporary setting, though it should be obvious that there's what to be learned from this story.
Ultimately, over the long run things have an amazing way of working themselves out. Who knows, though, if we'll get to see it?
Post a Comment