Saturday, December 10, 2016

Any Story But Their Own

“ ‘Will any more harm come to her by what I did?’

‘Child,’ said the Lion, ‘I am telling you your story, not hers. No one is told any story but their own.’ ”

— C.S. Lewis, The Horse and His Boy

I’ve always liked that last line.

Aravis asks the Lion about the fate of the slave she drugged in order to make her escape. Lewis does not tell us whether her question is prompted by guilt, compassion, fear or curiosity. All are possible.

But the Lion’s answer is simply, “No one is told any story but their own”.

The Horse and His Conclusions

As a boy, caught up in Lewis’s tale, I took the Lion to be an obvious picture of God, and his dealings with Aravis as suggestive with respect to his dealings with me. The lesson, I thought, was to pay attention to the things God is trying to teach me personally, and not waste a lot of time on mere curiosities.

I may have been right or wrong about that, but I have retained my distaste for spiritual abstractions, pointless detail and hypotheticals. After all, some of us are game to hear just about ANY story but our own, and few things are a greater waste of spiritual energy.

The account of King Saul and his visit to the witch of En-dor in 1 Samuel 28 is one of those passages that gives rise to just this sort of curiosity. Short summary: Unable to hear the voice of God and about to enter battle with the armies of the Philistines, Saul seeks direction from the dead prophet Samuel by means of consulting a medium, a practice forbidden by God and outlawed by Saul himself. A spirit appears to the medium and confirms that Israel will lose the battle, and that Saul and his sons are to die the very next day.

The Witch of En-dor

The questions that may be bandied about are numerous:
  • Why would God suddenly decide to speak to Saul through a medium when he had refused to speak to him earlier?
  • For that matter, why would God speak through a medium at all, since he had forbidden necromancy in Israel?
  • The old man in a robe came up out of the earth. Does that mean Sheol is literally below us?
  • Did Saul hear the voice of a demon? Or did the witch fake Samuel’s appearance? Or did Saul suffer a hallucination?
  • When Samuel tells Saul, “Tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me,” does that mean they would all be in heaven?
  • Samuel appeared in a robe. Does this mean we will all wear clothes in heaven?
  • If it was the real Samuel that appeared, does that mean mediums today really have the ability to contact our dead loved ones?
There are more. Lots more. You can get good and silly with it.

Questions, Questions

But what do all these questions have in common? All remain unanswered in the passage itself. The narrator does not spell things out for us, hence the intrigue. Some questions, in fact, may not be answerable at all with any degree of certainty. And yet astonishing amounts of time and energy have been devoted to online speculation about them, and many of the answers that are given quite dogmatically are rather dubious:
Obviously, age and clothing do not exist in the realm of the spirits of those who have died.”
Really? Who says? Chapter and verse, please. (Frankly, I think age and clothing in the spirit realm are unlikely too, but we have no firm, scriptural evidence to which we can point on that front. All the prophets saw clothed figures in their visions, not naked ones. Daniel speaks of the “Ancient of Days”, which implies the appearance of age.) Who knows precisely how we will perceive the spirit realm?

No Other Way
It is clear that the spirit of Samuel appears to the witch and speaks. There is no other way to understand the text in verses 15 and 16, which states that Samuel speaks.”
Not necessarily. “Samuel” could easily be storytelling shorthand. Once the writer has established that Saul believes the old man in a robe to be Samuel, the most natural way to tell the incident is to use the name “Samuel”, since that was how things appeared. We are reading historical narrative, not a doctrinal passage. How awkward and distracting would it be to write three times in the next few verses, “the spirit of the old man in a robe who had come up out of the earth that Saul believed to be Samuel”? Scripture is not generally written as if its readers are uniformly afflicted with Asperger syndrome.

From my perspective, very few details in this account are “obvious” or “clear”, especially the ones frequently noted to be obvious and clear. It seems to me that if it really matters to know whether the old man that appeared was actually a demonic impersonation, or really Samuel, we would have been told unequivocally.

The fact is, it doesn’t.

Written in Former Days for Our Edification

In keeping with our theme of being told our own story, what sorts of practical things can we learn from this incident and apply to our own lives? After all, among other reasons, it was surely written for our edification.

A few thoughts:
  1. We don’t need to keep asking God questions he has already answered. “Why then do you ask me?” says the-old-man-who-was-probably-Samuel’s-ghost in frustration. When God has spoken, the appropriate response is acceptance and obedience, not repeating our inquiries until we get the answer we want. The latter outcome is pretty unusual, and generally a mistake.
  2. Bad ways of acquiring knowledge do not become good ways just because this time we really, REALLY want an answer. God had clearly expressed his hatred of mediums and necromancers. Saul, knowing this, had banished them from Israel. What possible good could come from exploring the answers they were able to provide? Sometimes it’s actually better NOT to know.
  3. You don’t solve a disobedience problem with greater disobedience. Saul started “trembling” and ended “terrified”. He started in uncertainty and ended up flat out on the ground in horror. He started with “rebellion, which is as the sin of divination” and ended … in actual divination. Not an improvement on any front.
All of these are practical lessons that it seems to me the Spirit of God has an interest in impressing upon readers of 1 Samuel. Why? Because they build us up and help us to live more honorably. The more esoteric aspects of the passage, while intriguing, have minimal concrete value to the believer.

Still, some people would rather hear any story but their own.

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