This week, our quick tour of “salvation history” has moved on to the dawn of the ancient Israelite monarchy. The people ask for a king, Samuel objects, God overrules Samuel’s objection, and then fingers Saul for the role of “first king.” Our focus in all this will be on 1 Samuel 8:4-7 and 1 Samuel 10:17-24, and what all this has to do with God’s choosing and God’s chosenness. Some questions on the text are here. Here are a few notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We’re still in the early chapters of the book of 1 Samuel, right in the thick of the Deuteronomistic History. Saying that accepts the idea that we have, in Joshua – Judges – 1&2 Samuel – 1&2 Kings, something we can call “the” Deuteronomistic History. Certainly, as we have it, it seems like a single text. But it’s a complex document that seems to have been created by editing together a number of existing sources, possibly with the addition of some original material here and there. Whatever human author-editor or author-editors produced this document had a theological and political and social point of view, and an agenda with respect to that point of view. We may understand the text better if we remember that, and remember to look for what the author is doing to cast shade on this character and a positive light on that character, and to create sympathy or judgement in the reader, and so on.
Here at the beginning of the monarchy, we probably need to notice that the very idea of a monarchy looks really bad in places. That is surely a purposeful way of portraying the monarchy, and the people who ask for it. Even though they could have what will probably strike us as good reasons.
Narratively, the events of 1&2 Samuel surely have to be thought of in the context of the “time of the judges.” The prophet Samuel is also a judge – the last one. So we may want to remember how bad the time of the judges looks in the book of Judges.
We’ve already been introduced to Samuel; we’ve seen him grow up in the custody of an ineffectual priestly leader (Eli) and in close proximity to Eli’s corrupt priestly descendants, after his childhood is sacrificed in fulfillment of his mother Hannah’s vow. It’s hard not to have sympathy for Samuel in light of all that, even if he is a chronic sourpuss. Disaster has befallen the Israelites and the line of Eli in battle with the Philistines. It’s only because of YHWH’s fearsome presence that the Israelites get the Ark of the Covenant back. [The Philistines don’t want that thing! It’s killing them – literally.]
Samuel’s woeful lack of good parenting role models shows. [See 1 Samuel 8:1-3.] That brings us to our first focal text.
After that, we skip over the whole long “solemn warning” Samuel gives the people about kingship, and their determination to have one anyway. [One of those horror movie “No, don’t go into the dark, creepy basement!!” moments in the Bible.]
We also skip over the long story that introduces the character of Saul, brings Saul into contact with the prophet Samuel the first time, AND contains the seeded instructions about waiting for Samuel at Gilgal that will later be interpreted as the cause of Saul’s ultimate undoing [See 1 Samuel 9:1-10:16, and don’t blink at or forget 1 Samuel 10:8.]
At this point, we the readers will probably think, Saul has to know he’s been anointed “king.” It may be unclear to him, though, what that means. Unless he was among “all the people” back in chapter 8.
This, then, brings us to our second focal text, another story about Saul “becoming king,” where he is identified as king for all of the people, at Mizpah, 1 Samuel 10:17-24.
One map, showing the relevant towns (Ramah, Gibeah, Gilgal, Mizpah) is at Bible-Atlas. Another one, showing the relevant cities in the context of the territory of Benjamin, is at Bible Mapper.
It may be important to remember that Gibeah, Saul’s hometown, has shown up in the history before – and not in a good way. [See Judges 19-21. From that horrible story, we might have gotten the idea that having a king would be a GOOD idea. That was before Samuel was born, though, which may explain why he doesn’t see things that way.]
Mizpah has shown up in the history before, too – as the town where the Israelites declare war on the men of Gibeah, with far-reaching consequences for the tribe of Benjamin; and then, more positively, as the town where Samuel gathers Israel together for a revival and a successful stand against the Philistines [1 Samuel 7.] This background on Mizpah adds some ominous notes to our text.
The 1 Samuel 8 text appears in the lectionary for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B). The story about choosing Saul by lot in 1 Samuel 10 is one of those things we wouldn’t know was in the Bible if all we knew were the lectionary. Bible Content Examinees be warned.
CLOSER READING: If we didn’t have the context of the book of Judges, the negative experience of the people with Eli and his sons, and then the negative judgment on Samuel’s sons in 1 Samuel 8:3, we might think the people’s behavior in vv4-5 is superficial and faithless.
We do have that context, though, so it’s hard just to write their decision off as more “disobedience” on the pattern highlighted by the book of Judges. It may be more like desperation. The context makes the decisions facing the people far more complicated.
Isn’t that always the way.
We end our assigned reading on v7: God’s interpretation of the situation, that the people are rejecting God from being king. That works as an important re-interpretation of the final verse of the book of Judges, “There was no king in Israel …”
[If we ended on v8 or v9, though, we might wonder whether it’s a good idea for God and Samuel to hang out this much. If this were ordinary life, we’d be tempted to say they indulge each others’ bitter self-pity.]
It’s a mighty good idea to read 1 Samuel 8:8 – 1 Samuel 10:16. Just sayin’.
That brings us to the little narrative of how Samuel identifies Saul as the people’s first king, at Mizpah. Samuel “calls together” the people at Mizpah with a verb that resonates with the way people cry out against injustice – in a different verbal form, that’s exactly what it would mean.
Samuel relates a bitter divine speech in vv18-19, pointing out what God has done for the people, and how this demand for a king represents a rejection of God as king over Israel. So, next step: present yourselves by “tribes and clans” – family groupings, that also seem to be associated with warfare.
The last time this happened in the story, in Joshua 7:16-19, God was identifying Achan as an evildoer and the reason the Israelites lost the first battle for the town of Ai. That episode does not end well for the chosen one. This does not feel like a good sign.
So it may not be a big surprise that when it comes time to find Saul, the chosen one this time, he’s hiding. [Like Adam and Eve, after eating the forbidden fruit, btw; but also like the spies hidden by Rahab, and like the surviving son of Gideon. Sometimes hiding can save your life. Saul is not any more guilty than the next human. But the behavior does suggest something less than total confidence, absence of anxiety, etc. on his part.]
Translations tell us he’s hiding in the baggage (NRSV) or the equipment – it’s a really general word, that can mean … “utensils,” “things,” … “stuff.” God only knows what this stuff was.
Saul is tall. And, as we know from earlier – that text we skipped – very good looking.
Samuel calls attention to Saul’s appearance in v24. Just look at who God has called to himself. There’s no one like him. Everyone “shouts” – a ringing cry, like trumpets. “Live, the king!”
It would be so great. If we didn’t already know how this story is going to turn out.
Image: Shofar window of Synagogue Enschede, by Kleuske, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Saul meets Samuel,” James Tissot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons