The Holy Words of the Rejected

Greater than Guilt/16 - Compassion may explode inside every life. And so may the good

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 06/05/2018

Piu grandi della colpa 16 rid“The Baal Shem said to one of his disciples: »The lowest of the low you can think of, is dearer to me than your only son is to you.«”

Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim (English translation by Olga Marx)

Augurs, magicians and soothsayers are a recurrent note in the Bible. They embody a form of false prophecy that was widespread in antiquity and hard fought by the prophets, which represented a constant and very seductive temptation for Israel (to which it has often succumbed). They were the expression of an archaic popular religiosity that has never disappeared, and feeds a thriving business in our days, too. Biblical faith is not threatened by atheism, but by the replacement of YHWH with natural and simpler gods - yesterday and today, in faith and in life, where the eternal temptation is to convince ourselves that we are something smaller and more banal than the complex and beautiful reality we actually are.

“Then David said in his heart, »Now I shall perish one day by the hand of Saul. There is nothing better for me than that I should escape to the land of the Philistines«” (1 Samuel 27:1). David continues to show his genius in finding improbable but effective solutions to his problems. Now, to save himself, he decides to enter into an alliance with the enemy, passing onto the side of the Philistines. He carries out successful military ventures, raids and quite some looting. Set among the raids of David, we find the account of the last days of Saul’s life, which is among the most intense and exciting stories of the entire Bible.

Samuel had died. Saul, obeying the law of Moses, had driven away the “mediums and the necromancers” from Israel (28:3). However, the political situation is deteriorating. The Philistines are marching threateningly towards Saul. The king understands that the superiority of the Philistine military is overwhelming, and panics: “When Saul saw the army of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly” (28:5). He feels that only an extraordinary intervention of YHWH could save him. He still trusts in his God, and asks him for help: “And when Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord did not answer him, either by dreams, or by Urim, or by prophets” (28:6).

This is the umpteenth failure of Saul, and the umpteenth silence of God towards him. Saul continues to trust in that God who called him and anointed him through Samuel. But one day YHWH stopped talking to him, and did not start again, until the end. This silence of God poses difficult questions; it cannot leave us indifferent. Saul is surrounded, his people are about to capitulate, and God does not speak. The prophets are silent. Everything is dim, the night never ends, and dreams are populated only by ghosts and nightmares.

Theology and exegesis offer us some explanations for this silence and darkness, which, however, do nothing but increase our pietas for this repudiated king abandoned to his sad destiny. The pity of the reader can continue even when Saul, desperate, resorts to a last illegal and scandalous resource, which he himself fought against earlier. And this is where we come across one of the most famous and beautiful scenes of the Bible: “Then Saul said to his servants, »Seek out for me a woman who is a medium, that I may go to her and inquire of her«” (28:7). Saul disguises himself to be unrecognisable and goes to the witch of En-dor.

This disguise of Saul reminds us of many things. The many desperate people who, having exhausted the lawful resources of medicine and science, turn to healers and gurus because they do not want to die. They often 'disguise' themselves so as not to be recognized, out of shame for that part of their hearts that would never do it, which so often criticized and condemned it in others. Or the many entrepreneurs, some even good and honest, who the day before bringing the books to court, and perhaps after looking in the clear eyes of an employee, secretly and at night go to a usurer in search of that service 'from the realm of the dead' to continue hoping or delaying the end by just one day. Or to those men, and many women, who desperately cling to the last thread of hope to save their family and go to magicians and sorceresses in secret to get their beloved back home. These are the many brothers and sisters of Saul, not all bad, but all desperate and immersed in an immense darkness and a deafening silence of God (and of people). The mantle of piety that the Bible throws at Saul goes so far as to envelop all his companions of misfortune who, desperate like him, continue to disguise themselves and to 'invoke the dead' in order not to die.

When the reading of the Bible dwells on these wounded and fragile cases of humanity, it always asks us to take a stand, to say where we are in it. We can decide to be with the official theology, with the God of the scribes, the temple and the law, and condemn Saul and the many desperate people like him. But we can, with courage, decide instead to become supportive with the large family of this rejected king, to see unconscious tears in their eyes; to stay with them for a little while, to accompany them with our compassion, and then reconcile ourselves with our own desperate acts and with those of the desperate around us. And then, without judging them, let’s draw close to them, collect the half dead people along the way, put them on our donkey, wash their wounds with wine, take them to the inn and pledge our last two dinars.

“Then the woman said, »Whom shall I bring up for you?« He said, »Bring up Samuel for me«” (28:11). Yet another extraordinary twist. Saul wants Samuel, the prophet who found him and consecrated him king, the one who then repudiated him, and has not forgiven him. The text - even for some of its possible alterations - does not tell us why Saul invoked Samuel. Perhaps because he was the image of his first true vocation, the good spirit that had transformed his heart before it left him, because it was the voice of the best part of his soul. Or perhaps because of an extreme thirst for truth even if sought in the wrong way. We do not know - the Bible is also alive for its many holes and open spaces that become the wounds where the text is born and reborn with us, its readers.

As soon as the woman heard Samuel's name, "she cried out with a loud voice. And the woman said to Saul, »Why have you deceived me? You are Saul«” (28:12). This cry of the woman is extraordinary, and so is the way she recognizes Saul: while he pronounces Samuel’s name. For the woman Samuel is the image of the condemnation of her profession: the wrong kind of prophecy, the techniques of divination and magic. Hence, perhaps, the scream. But why does she recognize Saul in saying 'Samuel'? Perhaps because each person has their own way of pronouncing the names of the decisive people in their life, with an unmistakable accent, a unique calligraphic stamp. Every Christian says ‘Jesus’ differently from all other Christians, every son says ‘mother’ in his own way, and the name by which we call our bride is different from how all the others say it. One can recognize a Franciscan, perhaps ‘disguised’ and not wearing a habit, by the way he says ‘Francis’. No disguise resists the pronunciation of certain special names, because in saying them we return naked just like on the first day (and for the same reason when we decide, because of the great pain, to erase our past, we begin to forget certain names).

What is even more surprising and in some ways disconcerting is the obedience of Samuel's spirit to the woman's invocation. She says: “»I see a god coming up out of the earth.« He said to her, »What is his appearance?« And she said, »An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped in a robe.« And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and paid homage” (28:13-14). Simply gorgeous! (It is not easy to comment on these verses that take your breath away, stop your hand on the keyboard and increase your heartbeat.) It's him: Saul has no doubts, at these times there is no doubt. We would now expect different words from Samuel. And instead we find the usual ones. Samuel does not change - his greatness also lies in this hieratic consistency. And he says to Saul: “The Lord has done to you as he spoke by me, for the Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbour, David... the Lord will give Israel also with you into the hand of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me” (28:17-19). The words of the prophet do not change. But ours can: we can now whisper different words to Saul's ear as we lie on the ground, next to him: “Then Saul fell at once full length on the ground, filled with fear because of the words of Samuel” (28:20). Saul wants to die, having exhausted that last backdoor resource.

But it is precisely here that this chapter offers us its final pearl, which is both unexpected and improbable:
 “And the woman came to Saul, and when she saw that he was terrified, she said to him, »Behold, your servant has obeyed you. (...) Now therefore, you also obey your servant. Let me set a morsel of bread before you; and eat, that you may have strength when you go on your way.«” Even a necromancer, even a witch can be capable of compassion, in life and in the Bible, too. This woman triumphs over her evil profession, because we are all possibly capable of doing things and saying words that are better than life would have us do or say every day. And her words ‘revive’ Saul: “He refused and said, »I will not eat«. But his servants, together with the woman, urged him, and he listened to their words” (28:21-23). In this scene of death and darkness, a ray of light emanating from a discarded and excommunicated woman illuminates the whole environment: Saul “arose from the earth and sat on the bed. Now the woman had a fattened calf in the house, and she quickly killed it, and she took flour and kneaded it and baked unleavened bread of it, and she put it before Saul and his servants” (28:23-25).

The necromancer becomes the ‘merciful father’, who, by the killing of the fat calf celebrates a man-child ‘who was dead’ and, even if only for a dinner, has ‘returned to life’ - and the ‘older brother’ is us: we do not enter the banquet because we are scandalized by the Bible’s excess humanity.

It’s a wonderful passage that reveals the infinite humanity of the Bible. It also reveals to us the heart of women, capable of taking up good and different views when religion, the law and men have exhausted them. Saul's last supper was desired and set by a sorceress, a necromancer, a woman, a person who, perhaps, gave him the last merciful embrace, the last good words that life, Samuel and God had denied him.

The Bible is in-finite also for the words and gestures of ordinary men and women, who are often discarded or sinners, allowing the biblical word to be, sometimes, more human than the words of God spoken by his prophets.

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