Recently a friend and fellow blogger asked me a thorny question. I paraphrase:
1 Samuel 18:10 is a perplexing verse: “The next day an evil spirit from God rushed upon Saul.” “An evil spirit from God?” What’s that supposed to mean? Does God send evil spirits to us?
The short answer is No.
But if the answer is No, we have a problem. Sacred Scripture does not lie. So how do we resolve this puzzle.
The first thing we need to consider is the nature of what we call “Sacred Scripture,” which is nothing other than God’s divine word revealed to human authors. We often refer to it as the Inspired Word of God. The author of Sacred Scripture is both God, who reveals and inspires, and human beings, who receive that revelation and are inspired to transmit it in writing. The ultimate insurer of the Sacred Inspiration is the Holy Spirit, the primary author of the written Word of God. The Church, also inspired by the Holy Spirit, has the gift of discerning what writings belong to the cannon of inspired writings we call Sacred Scripture.
The involvement of the human hand in transmitting the Word of God and of the Church in interpreting is one of many examples of how God works through human instruments to reveal his Word. Why would God work through human instruments?
The short answer is because he can.
Human beings do not just passively receive God’s revelation. We are active participants in it and thus we share in God’s glory, all of which will be fully revealed to us at the end of time. In the meantime, we ordinarily learn things the way all human beings do with our eyes and ears and through experience. Another important element to keep in mind is culture.
Culture is an extremely important element in the transmission of revelation. Jesus, for example, speaks in parables to his first listeners and uses examples they can relate to, e.g., shepherds and sheep, the harvest, a banquet, a wedding, etc. Today, people do not relate so easily to things like “kings,” “candle oil,” and “camels”. But back then, people easily related to all these things. So when interpreting Sacred Scripture, we need to consider the cultural context in which it was written.
Now, what do we know about the time and culture of Saul? Most of us probably don’t know too much about it. A critical reading of the Bible can give us some clues. For example, we know that Saul was Israel’s first king. Before that the Israelites were just a bunch tribes, from a political standpoint. From our 21st Century perspective, that’s very primitive. It is difficult for us to relate to what their cultural and political situation really was at that time.
So we are not just dealing with an ancient people, but rustic tribal people, whose codes and customs seem primitive to our 21st Century mindset.
There’s the rub. These people do not think the way we do, their understanding of the world is incredibly different from ours, and so we should expect that they would express themselves differently than we do.
According to the majority opinion of biblical scholars, the Book of Samuel (1 and 2) was written between the years 630-540 BC (Bronze Age). If we analyze other Bronze Age literature, such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, we quickly start notice particular literary traits that are proper of that period: hyperbole, personification and deification of forces, bizarre occurrences are personified and attributed to God or some other spirit, like an angel or a demon.
Of course, just as God works through human beings as his instruments, he also can and does use angels and even demons as instruments. The revelations to Mary and Joseph about the birth of Jesus were through an angel. Demons speak to Christ before he exorcises them. So we are not discounting the possibility that there was some sort of evil spirit “sent from God to Saul.” The problem with taking that literally, however, means that we are left with the conclusion that God torments people with evil spirits — something unbefitting of a perfectly benevolent God who could do otherwise. So let’s consider another possibility.
The author (or authors) of 1 Samuel was a Bronze Age writer inspired to transmit God’s revelation to the people of his time and culture — particularly, the Jews. The stories he compiled and wrote down were handed on to him by oral tradition over the course of hundreds of years (similarly, the Iliad and Odyssey were written around 750 BC, but Homer was a traveling bard of the 12th Century BC, so oral tradition plays an important role in the early transmission of ancient literature). These “histories” of Israel, were the Sacred Heritage of God’s chosen people, who were an ancient people, who held ancient customs and traditions.
It makes sense, therefore, that we will find the same types of literary devices in Old Testament literature that we would find in other pieces of ancient, Bronze Age, literature. The authors of those times attributed everything out of the ordinary to God’s direct influence.
Now Saul’s behavior — up and deciding to nail his faithful servant David to the wall with a spear — was certainly out of the ordinary. To suggest that Saul was overcome by his passions of envy and anger is a bit of an understatement, even by today’s standards. To the ancient writer, an incident of these proportions needs further explanation: “An evil spirit from God rushed upon Saul.” To the modern reader, this sounds a bit far fetched. Nonetheless, it is true!
Here is where the modern reader takes on the role of interpreter. We already considered some of the keys for interpretation by considering the cultural-literary context. We can now consider some of what we know from our understanding of the theology of grace.
Saul had begun to do his will rather than God’s will and that is why God opted for David over Saul as the Shepherd King who would guide his people. King Saul was thus headed for an “epic downfall.” Having chosen his sinful pride and vanity over his love for God, he was no longer in a state of grace and more subject to the throws of his passions. His wounded pride turned to anger and envy when he began to see David’s popularity rise in the sight of the people. Those festering passions gave way to rumination, and ultimately to temptation. The devil had control over Saul’s heart.
In short, God allowed Saul to be overcome by evil forces unleashed on his impure mind and soul. In Bronze Age epic terms, “An evil spirit from God rushed upon Saul,” and drove him to carry out evil deeds.
Evil does not come from God. It is the lack of the good God wills. God can allow things to happen that go against his will, but he does not make those things happen. He simply allows us to act according to our free will. When we use our will to do things that contradict God’s will, we separate ourselves from the goodness of God and subject ourselves to forces of evil.
What can we learn from reading Scripture in this way? We can now relate to this story and apply it to our own life situations. When we act out in pride, anger, and envy, what is really happening in our soul? And what is the root cause of “losing our minds” and behaving out of control, even if it is just for a short moment?
When God is absent in our decisions, we start looking for ways to satisfy ourselves, first and foremost, we become the center of our own lives, our expectations focus on making sure that everything in life is pleasing to ourselves, and ultimately, we loose peace in our soul. Having abandoned God’s will, God leaves us to our own passions, which the devil takes advantage of in order to drive us further and further from God in our thoughts, words, and actions. Like Saul, we run the risk of becoming corrupt and sinful.
Certainly, the devil plays his part. In Scripture, especially in the Old Testament, the reality of evil spirits is given a literary role. In the case of Saul, the “evil spirit from God,” is both a personification of his passion driven rage and a dramatization of real spiritual influences at work in Saul’s soul after he had abandoned God in his heart.
Is a literal interpretation also not possible? It certainly is possible. However, by entertaining that possibility we raise enormous problems, for example, how can God be the direct cause of evil events? If someone else has an answer for that question, please share it in the comments below. My answer to that question simply is that God will never be the direct cause of anything evil.