This past Sabbath when I was teaching the Sabbath school lesson on Samuel, I had an interesting experience that I happened to find very Nathanish, and perhaps it is something that you will be able to relate to as well. What struck me as being most significant about the situation is that it exhibited some of the most poignant and frequent problems I have in communication, and that is the way that others hear something different than what I am communicating. In fact, what happened was such a Nathanish experience that it happened multiple times during the course of the discussion, and as one might expect, once one understands the situation, the difficulty involved the interpretation of Saul’s fatal seance that he undertook on the last night of his life before facing death at the hands of the Philistines the next day. In such an incident as this one, it is very tempting for people to hear what they already believe and to respond according to their own interpretation instead of what is said and implied in the passage.
When I first commented on the appearance of “Samuel” to Saul and the medium of Endor, the young man in question piped up about whether I was saying that Samuel came down from heaven to appear before them. I said that I had mentioned no such thing, but rather that a spirit impersonating Samuel had made it appear as if Samuel had risen from the grave. When I later commented that the spirit said that Saul and his sounds would be with him, he then wondered if that meant that Samuel was in hell, and again I replied that I had said no such thing, but rather that Saul and his sons would be with Samuel in the grave. Twice the child’s own beliefs in the afterlife had prevented him from understanding what I said very straightforwardly. Despite the fact that I had said nothing about the eternal reward of either Samuel or Saul–and we can be confident that as Samuel was a man of God that he will be raised incorruptible at the last trumpet, while it is very likely that Saul will appear as a cautionary tale of some kind in the general resurrection to follow at the Great White Throne judgment–the young man heard what I said through the filters of his own theological understanding and was puzzled that spirits would return from heaven as a result of seances or that good and bad men would have the same fate after death, namely to go to the grave.
It is perhaps to be regretted that there was not more time for a deeper discussion about the student’s obvious confusing concerning the afterlife. It must be admitted that it was not an entirely new experience for me to be so completely misunderstood by someone who I was communicating with. Indeed, as someone whose communications are generally restrained and layered in nature, it is a wonder that I am not misunderstood more often or more completely. Yet the sort of failure on the part of the child to understood what I meant is precisely the sort of misunderstanding that occurs often in this life when it comes to the interpretation of what is said and what is written. For me, it was both straightforward that a demon would want to impersonate a godly and dead man in order to bring someone who had lived in rebellion against God to despair and that all people, both godly and unredeemed, would rest in the grave awaiting the resurrection that they are assigned to. Yet it must be admitted that such matters require a certain degree of interpretation, just as the child in my class who was confused was confused because to him it was not straightforward that demons would act so or that the good and evil of this world would have the same (lack of) existence after death for any length of time. When it comes to our understanding of texts, we come with existing interpretations that color what we read and what we hear others say. This is perhaps inevitable even if its consequences are sometimes lamentable.
What is perhaps remarkable is that the young man was willing on multiple occasions to bring up his confusion. In interactions where people have wildly contrasting or contradictory interpretive schemes, especially where, as in the teaching of a class, where one party has far greater positional power than the other, there can be the tendency to overawe someone and to make it difficult for others to speak up when they see things differently. And while I do not think I am the sort of person who deliberately wishes to shut down inquiry and discussion, for I tend to find disagreement to be a fruitful source of conversation and analysis, certainly not everyone would have replied to me as the young lad did in my class, who repeatedly expressed his confusion because he was seeing the passages we discussed with a far different interpretive scheme than I was. It must have been obvious that while I certainly disagreed with him that I did not view him with contempt, as is sometimes the case when it comes to such disagreements. Rather, I saw the situation as an obvious teaching moment, even if it is one that I do not think was handled perhaps to the level it could have been had there been more time. But there is seldom enough time, I suppose, to dig up everything that is hidden and to bring it into the light to be discussed openly.