Are there parts of the Bible that you resist reading? How about the historical portion of the OT -- chock-full of atrocities that are unfathomable, yet by no means unique to that time in history, or the nation of Israel: tribal warfare, genocide, murders, family feuds... Recognizing the reluctance to engage with such texts, every summer, the lectionary includes sets of consecutive readings from these books. Starting today, we will read from 1, 2 Samuel about the transition between the two political systems in early Israel.
Following the escape from Egypt, the desert wanderings, and the conquest of Canaan, Israel existed as a set of 12 loosely connected tribes, continually striving to protect their commercial routes; at the time, mainly from the Philistines who had superior, iron weapons, as Assyria and Babylon were unconcerned with Israel just yet. In response to these threats, occasionally, charismatic leaders emerged from each of the tribes. They were unelected and non-hereditary, but might have belonged to the aristocracy that descended from the prominent warriors. The book of Judges tells of 12 such leaders, one from each tribe, including one woman. Their authority was mostly local, but their reputation and influence went beyond their own tribe. They were said to have “judged” Israel, using the verb sh-f-t, which previously applied to Moses. This system lasted about 300 years, until c. 1150–1025 BC. Eli and Samuel were Israel’s last judges.
Recall the story of Samuel’s rise to the prophetic role, which we read in Epiphany. Samuel grew up in a shrine where Eli served, but one night, God revealed to him that the authority of Eli would fall due to the moral failures of his sons. After this, his influence as a “seer” began to grow. Ironically, he, too, failed to raise righteous sons, yet tried to impose them as his successors. As a result, Israel rejected both him and his sons, and never entertained the option of the priests or judges holding hereditary power. Israel faced a choice: continue as a set of loosely connected tribes until the next military threat, or form a confederation under hereditary monarchy. The latter would unite the tribes for greater external security at the expense of losing their independence. In today's passage, we find Samuel’s attempt at dissuading the Israelites from doing just this, but the rest of the book recounts the eventual establishment of the monarchy.
Does Samuel speak here as a God-serving prophet, or as a leader clutching to his power? Was it wrong for Israel to establish a monarchy, unite the tribes, and relinquish the covenantal theology that God was their only direct ruler? The answer depends on which part of 1 Sam we choose to read. (As so much of history depends on who writes it!) The book is said to be the compilation of two sources edited after the exile. If this is correct, then the editor would have seen the fall of Israel under the Babylonians, and was searching history for possible causes of her demise. The two sources that s/he thus put together each had their own angle on Israel’s transition from the era of judges to that of kings, and on Samuel’s role in the transition. This is why in 1 Sam, there are two contradictory versions of how Saul became a king! There’s the pro-monarchical portion, possibly written by a priest during the reign of Solomon (1 Sam. 9-10:16, 1 Sam. 11), and the later, anti- monarchical source. In the former, Samuel “the seer” secretly anoints Saul as the God-ordained leader (like another Judge); in the latter, people choose Saul by drawing lots, forcing Samuel to secede the power, and yield to their “sinful” will.
Thereby, our post-exilic editor presents the win of the pro-monarchists of Samuel’s time, yet attributes to it the cause for his nation’s collapse. This is not surprising given the disillusionment of the post-exilic era, resulting in the conflation of the rise of monarchy with the change in relationship between God and Israel. But is it a theological truth or historical bias? When the Israelites installed king Saul, he defeated the Ammonite king Nahash (“serpent”). In his farewell address, Samuel proclaimed that the Israelites had given up YHWH as their king “out of the fear of the serpent”. Did he refer to the literal king called Nahash, or the serpent of Genesis? Was there ever a unified nation of Israel that was truly led by God, or were there merely the 12 competing tribes? Did God ordain the system of Judges or use it to rescue Israel in a cycle of apostasy, crisis, repentance, and a temporary leader securing a short-term victory over the threat of the day?
The scriptures do, in fact, record God’s promises to Abraham and Jacob: a nation would come from them that will be led by kings. Establishing a king is not what had finally made Israel into a nation like the others; it’s more likely that the decision to centralize power resulted from finally growing into one. Yet, she rarely got one who would match Deut.17 description of an ideal king; who would read the Law daily, and resist amassing wives and riches. Samuel warned that most kings are likely to become tyrants, and history proved him right. As such, the Isarelites traded tribal freedom for internal oppression, and still once day crumbled under the assault of more powerful empires.
Both names Saul and Samuel are from the root to “ask for”. As the old saying goes, be careful of what you ask. Israel wanted to “to be like other nations” and “to have a king to lead her into battle”. We, too, ask God to fix many areas of our lives -- impatiently, and with the wrong motives and timing. Like Israel, we struggle to balance “being yourself” and fitting in. And we favour the material, tangible sources of security, rather than relying on the unseen divine power. Our own government and church authorities, too, have failed the most vulnerable among us in so many ways, just one of which came to light this past week in Kamloops. But neither our gifts or mistakes define us, nor do the failures of our leaders define who we are as a nation. Surely, we will never be free from the powers and principalities of this world. But our souls do live, and move, and have our being in the cornerstone that the builders rejected, who came to serve and not to be served, the light which the dark world fails to recognize. May we, with each other’s help and that of our scriptures, grow in the knowledge and love of this one true God. Amen.