Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (I Samuel 4:14-22) transports me to Polis Massa, a secret asteroid base seen in the closing scenes of George Lucas’ Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. In this third installment of the prequels to the more famous and more critically acclaimed Star Wars trilogy of the 70s, we see how the back story of the battle of good vs. evil, the Force vs the Dark Side, emerged. Anikan Skywalker has broken Jedi rules by falling in love and marrying. Meanwhile, Senator Palpatine has exploited the fears of the people to transform the democratic Republic into an imperial Nazi-like dictatorship, to the cheers of the mob. Upon seeing this unfold, Skywalker’s pregnant wife, Padmé Amidala, comments, So this is how liberty dies: with thunderous applause. Emperor Palpatine then exploits Anikan’s own fears (he dreams Padmé dies in child-birth), promising him the power to prevent her death if he will join him and become the Sith Lord Vader. When Padmé confronts her husband and tries to rescue him from the control of the Dark Side, he attacks her. Jedi warriors intervene and defeat Vader, rescuing Padmé and taking her to Polis Massa, where she does indeed die in childbirth, as the twins Luke and Leia secretly enter the world of Star Wars. Padmé dies still believing that there is still some good in Anakin, but she does not live to see it.
I Samuel reads something like a George Lucas script, as a battle between the forces of good and evil emerges, with the Philistines playing the part of Palpatine’s clones and the elder Eli playing the part of a Jedi master. There is even something of a Force at work, although in this drama, the Force is not a part of all living things, surrounding us, penetrating us, binding the galaxy together as Obi-Wan taught Luke. No, for the ancient Hebrews, the Force was contained in a box, the Ark of the Covenant. God’s presence and power was believed to reside in this Ark, giving victory to the people who carried it. As the drama unfolds, the Philistine Empire indeed strikes back, capturing the Ark, and killing the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phineas. When news of this crisis reaches the elder Eli, he responds by falling back off his chair, breaking his neck and dying. The tragic news then causes Eli’s daughter in-law, wife of Phineas, to immediately experience the travail of hard labor, and she dies in childbirth. Unlike Padmé, though, this unnamed woman does not die with hopeful words crossing her lips. She uses her last words to name her son in a sign of despair: He will be called Ichabod, which means the glory has departed. Her orphaned son will grow up not only without father, mother, and grandfather, he will grow up without the presence of God. The glory, the presence, the power of God, was lost when the Ark was captured. It is not a happy ending.
George Lucas created another famous series with a connection to this story. In the first Indiana Jones movie, Indy is in search of that very Ark that the Israelite army lost to the Philistines. There is fear that Hitler might capture it, giving him the power to conquer and rule the world. This movie and the story in I Samuel help me understand some of the angst so prevalent in our world today. There are people of faith here and around the world who seem to believe that the glory of God still resides in some kind of container or Ark. Humans have this persistent habit of putting God in a box, of limiting the glorious presence to a set of creeds, or doctrines, or rituals, or political persuasions, or iconic figures. And when that container is threatened, when the creeds no longer function to bind people together, when the rituals no longer attract the masses, when the icons no longer command universal respect, when the ark is lost, the embittered believers begin to embody the spirit of Phineas’ wife. In every age of dramatic social change they can be heard wailing and travailing with the agony and angst of someone dying in child-birth. They have a name for the different understandings of God and the unheard of experiences of God’s presence born anew in our world today: Ichabod. The glory has departed. Thankfully, the promises of God did not end there with Phineas’ wife, neither do they end with those Pharisees and fundamentalists who channel her spirit in every age. Later stories and passages remind us that our treasure is not to be packaged in a doctrinal box or credal container. It is carried in earthen vessels; in other words, we are the ark. In every act of compassion, every movement of mercy and grace, every expression of welcome, we embody the power and presence of God. The glory has arrived. The Ark is not lost. There is still some good in the world.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.