It’s hard to keep track of the news, these days. This week felt particularly hard. I couldn’t pry myself away from the internet yesterday – watching hate show itself so baldly in Charlottesville, wondering about friends and colleagues who were there, waiting for the President to say something, wondering how my fellow clergy were going to re-write their sermons to take this eruption of hatred into account. Maybe you weren’t following things in Charlottesville so closely yesterday, but I feel pretty sure that one of the terrifying headlines of late has gotten to you, held you in its grasp, made it hard for you to focus on much of anything else. What do we do when the world feels immeasurably dangerous?
This week’s text from 1 Samuel felt like a balm to me as I was reading and studying it. Maybe it will feel the same way to you. Or maybe it will fuel your discontent. Or maybe it will feel completely unrelated. Nonetheless, our story of Samuel continues this morning. Listen, won’t you, for contemporary resonances.
When we last left Samuel, he had lost his lifelong mentor, and been suddenly thrust into leadership of the temple. The Philistines had stolen the Ark of the Covenant, and when they finally brought it back, Samuel was the one who assumed Priest-in-Charge duties. He restored the Israelites to their proper form of worship, and, the text tells us, he “judged Israel as long as he lived.” He traveled all over – from Bethel to Gilgal to Mizpah and back to Ramah, where his home was.
Samuel had sons, and when he grew too old to carry the whole burden of priest and judge duties, he appointed his sons to be the new judges. But, just like old Eli’s sons before them, Samuel’s sons were not great leaders. They were “bent on gain, they accepted bribes, and they subverted justice.” The Israelites knew what rascals Samuel’s sons were, and they begged him to appoint a king, instead.
Remember, right, that the Israelites – the people descended from all those family legends we’ve been studying, the ones who were descended from this small family out in the desert, the ones who moved into Egypt and encountered empire only to become slaves to the Pharaoh there, the ones who’ve spent decades, now, being led by various priests and warriors and judges – the Israelites have never had a king.
God, who called these people his own and continues to care for them, to lead them out of slavery and into promised land, who keeps showing up just when all hope was lost and bringing forth a new heir or a new leader or a new way of worship…God never felt it necessary to appoint a king over Israel. In fact, when they did make it into Egypt and out of the desert, the king there was less than beneficial: they ended up enslaved. It took an act of God to lead them out.
Still, the Israelites are dissatisfied with the way things are going. Samuel was a pretty good leader, like Eli was before him, but now his sons have come to power and they are not leaders of integrity. Moreover, every other people that they know of has a king.
The elders gather around Samuel and say to him: “You have grown old, and your sons have not followed your ways. Therefore, appoint a king for us, to govern us like all the other nations.”
It’s accurate that most of the other civilizations in the Ancient Near East had kings. These leaders controlled resources, mustered armies, and meted out justice. They were seen as shepherds of the people and often superhuman – if not gods themselves, then the very next best thing. And, in most of the writings that we have about the kings of the ANE, kingship was believed to be initiated by the gods and descended onto humankind. In other words, in those days, kings were put into power by divine beings, and seen as the gods’ right-hand men.
It’s pretty fascinating that kingship for the Israelites comes about in exactly the opposite way. God does not choose and install a king for his people. Instead, the people, fed up with the kind of leadership that they have, insist that Samuel anoint a king for them. This king will not be divinely chosen: this king is clearly put in place because the people are fed up.
And the people are not shy about why they want a king: they want to be like everyone else. They saw that other nations had kings instead of judges, they’re afraid for their own safety and security, and they demand a king for themselves.
Samuel is not happy. He’s been deeply formed in the way of priests and judges, and he also knows that even when the priests and judges don’t act with integrity, God has a way of bringing about better leadership. Didn’t he, himself, end up as judge when Eli’s sons, who stood to inherit the priesthood, were struck dead during battle? And hadn’t God himself whispered to Samuel that he would take care of this during that dream way back when he was a young boy?
Samuel knows what the people do not: God is in charge, and God will see to it that his people are cared for and well led. Samuel complains to God: “can you believe this, Lord? The people know who you are, they know your promises, they’ve even seen you do mighty works and save them from bad leaders and from our enemies. Don’t they remember that time you inflicted hemorrhoids on the Philistines when they tried to steal the Ark of the Covenant? Don’t they trust YOU to be their king?”
But God, who knows that arguing logic with scared kids is of no use, says to Samuel: “Heed the demand of the people in everything they say to you. For it is not you that they have rejected; it is ME they have rejected as their king. Like everything else they have done ever since I brought them out of Egypt to this day – forsaking me and worshipping other gods – so they are doing to you. Heed their demand; but warn them solemnly, and tell them about the practices of any king who will rule over them.”
And so, Samuel takes a deep, deep breath, and goes back out to the gathered people and does what God has told him to do. He warns them about all the ways of Kings:
This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: he will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plough his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.’
“So, you guys,” Samuel says, “is this really what you want? I mean, are you SURE? I really, really, really don’t think you’re going to like it.”
And the people said:
“We must have a king over us, that we may be like all the other nations. Let our king rule over us and go out at our head and fight our battles.”
Samuel, with another deep sigh, leaves the assembly and reports back to the Lord. “God,” he says, “they’re really serious. This is happening. Are you SURE you want me to give them what they want?”
And God says, “Heed their demands and appoint a king for them.”
But there is a tiny problem: who, exactly, should Samuel appoint to be King over this whole people? It really can’t be an internal hire – just think of all the politics and hidden alliances that would have sprung up. And it’s not like the Israelites had a lot of contact with people outside their own community. How would they even FIND a King?
Well, God solves this problem pretty quickly, as does the text. The very next thing we hear is that “there was a man of Benjamin (you remember Joseph’s little brother?) whose name was Kish son of Abiel son of Zeror son of Becorath son of Aphiah, a Benjaminite (oh, right, a member of one of the twelve tribes, still distantly related to Samuel’s people), a man of substance. This man had a son whose name was Saul, (note: it wasn’t SAUL who was a man of substance…he was the son of one); no one among the Israelites was handsomer than he; he was a head taller than any of the people.”
So, here’s what we know about Saul, the guy who is going to be anointed the very first King of the Israelites, the one the people have clamored for, the one God has sent to fulfill their desire to have someone to rule over them and fight their battles for them:
His dad is a “man of substance”;
he is more handsome than any of the Israelites;
he’s really tall.
I mean, sure, when you’re looking for a King, those are the most important qualities, right? Comes from a good family, looks attractive, really tall.
Totally qualified to lead an entire people, wage war, distribute resources, mitigate disputes and generally be considered a divine being in total control of an entire people. I mean, HE’S TALL, you guys!
Never mind that Samuel himself, the last leader of this ornery people, was dedicated to God before he was even conceived, spent his entire life being formed in the ways of the temple and mentored by the priest and leader, and only assumed leadership after a lifetime of learning how to do all the important things, in the wake of his mentor’s death and his people’s defeat in battle. Who cares about all that preparedness? Who needs formation? This man…THIS MAN…is HANDSOME.
A few of Saul’s father’s donkeys ran off, and his dad sent Saul out after it. “Take some servants,” he said, “and go find those asses.” This is verbatim, direct translation, from the text, and I cannot help but read a bit more into it than Saul going to look for livestock. Haven’t the Israelites, who he’ll eventually stumble into, been acting like donkeys?
Saul and his servants look and look, but they can’t find the lost donkeys. They traveled over every hillside around Jerusalem, day after day, and finally, Saul said “this is taking too long. Let’s go home – otherwise Dad will think he’s lost his son in addition to his donkeys.” But his servant recognized the hillside nearest them as close to the place where Samuel, the prophet, lived. “There is a man of God in that town,” he told Saul, “everything he says comes true. Let’s go see him; maybe he can tell us where to find the donkeys.”
Fine. Saul agrees, but insists that if they go to visit this prophet man, they ought to take a gift. “What do we have?” The servant said “I happen to have a quarter shekel of silver. I can give that to the man of God, and maybe he will tell us about our errand.” So they set off.
As they climbed the hillside, they saw some girls walking out to the well to draw water, and asked if the prophet was in the town. “Yes,” the girls replied, “But he’s about to leave – you should hurry if you want to catch him.” Saul and his servants hurry into town, and as they entered the gates, Samuel passed them on his way up to the temple.
Samuel, we know, never stopped talking with God. And just the night before, God had told him that he would be sending a man from the territory of Benjamin, and that Saul should go ahead and anoint this (tall) (handsome) man as ruler of Israel. And when Samuel looked up and saw Saul striding into town, God said to him “That’s him!”
So, in obedience to the Lord, Samuel greeted Saul and invited him over to dinner. Saul and his group went home with Samuel and ate a delicious dinner. But when Saul asked about the lost donkeys, he got a very unexpected reply: “Oh, yes,” Samuel said. “The donkeys have been found. Don’t worry about them. But there’s something else: the Lord has told me that you are to be anointed as the king of the Israelites. For whom is all of Israel yearning, if not for you and all your ancestral house?”
Saul is, understandably, surprised. But he puts up no fight and apparently offers no excuse or resistance. Samuel and Saul went up to the roof, and Samuel took a flask of oil out and poured oil on Saul’s head, kissed him, and said “The Lord herewith anoints you ruler over His own people.” Then Samuel gives Saul a few instructions about returning home, what to tell his family, what signs he’ll see on the way to know that God is really with him, and sends him off.
And, as Saul turns around to leave, the text says that “God gave him another heart.”
And that’s that. The Israelites have a king. Done and done.
See, isn’t that a comforting story? 🙂
I love the way God acts toward her people: like an amused and slightly annoyed parent. Clearly, God did not want Israel to have a King. The people had been formed to be God’s people, a nation made different than all the rest, a community built without need for a monarch, trained to put their trust in the one, divine King. It had worked for them up to this point, they’d managed to grow into huge numbers, just like God promised Abraham; they’d been led out of slavery and found the promised land, just like God promised Jacob; even just now, in the last few years, they’d lost their most precious Ark of the Covenant and then miraculously had it returned to them, ended up with crooked leadership and suddenly had them replaced with a strong man of faith. God was in the process of keeping her promises.
And still, those Israelites wanted nothing more than to be like everybody else, to make themselves feel safer by having a King, to do things their way.
And God does not condemn them, God does not chide them, God doesn’t even seem all that surprised or angry – even though it’s clear that this request is an outright rejection of God’s own protection.
No, God just sighs a deep, deep sigh and tells Samuel to give the kids what they want.
As if it won’t really make all that much difference in the end, as if God saw this coming all the way back in the Garden of Eden.
Clearly, there is a better way to go about being God’s people: don’t have a king. But when God’s people decide not to go that route, God does not abandon them to their fate. Oh, yes, there are consequences, and they are huge – we’re still wrestling with the consequences of this choice today. But the bad choice does not separate the Israelites from God.
No, instead, God sighs really deeply, brings them the tall, handsome, unqualified guy they insisted upon, and after Samuel anoints him, as he turns to walk away, God gives him a new heart.
God knows our fears. God knows our sin. God even anticipates our rejection. Our cowardice and self-righteousness does not surprise the God who made us. And it does not separate us from his presence, from his love, or from his plan.
Of course, there’s a better way to live. There’s the original intent, straight from the Creator: live without fear, without shame, without needing a King to do our dirty work for us. But even when we reject that better way, we are not cast out of possibility.
Here’s why that’s comforting to me, today: I don’t think God was surprised at all by yesterday’s eruption of hatred and bigotry in Charlottesville. I don’t think God was surprised, and I know that some of our sisters and brothers of color who have lived with that kind of hatred every day of their lives were not surprised.
If we are surprised, that’s part of the privilege of whiteness.
I don’t think God is surprised by the depths of our capacity to hate. I think God offers us, again and again, over and over, generation after generation the possibility of another way forward, the assurance that we do not need to be afraid of one another, the reality of a new heaven and a new earth, available to us here and now.
And when we choose to bypass God’s offer, choose to give in to the parts of us that tell us the world is a place to be feared and resources are scarce and we should huddle closer to the people who are like us and keep everybody else out and probably, while we’re at it, get ourselves a king or a militia or an assault rifle or a vocabulary full of hatefulness or a huge bigoted rally where we can wield tiki torches and spew vitriol and parade around like we are gods…
…or even when we see all that happening and refuse to speak up because we’re scared that we’ll make someone angry or start an argument or maybe even lose our jobs…
…or when we see all of it happening and refuse to acknowledge the ways we, ourselves, might be responsible for it by blaming Nazis or evangelicals or the president, pointing fingers instead of doing our own work, confessing our own sin, working in our own ways toward accepting God’s promise…
Whenever we choose to bypass God’s offer, we take ourselves that much farther from God’s intention for us, his beloved creation.
But our choices do not leave us abandoned. God does not throw her hands in the air and stomp off. God shakes her head, sighs deeply, allows us what we’ve demanded, and then sneaks in around the corner and does what she was always planning to do in another, maybe less ideal, way.
God is not surprised by our fear, our hatred, our violence. But I do think God celebrates, squeals with delight, smiles with the warmth of a thousand suns, whenever we choose to accept her offer of another way – the hard and painful way of justice, joy, and peace.