Studying 1 Samuel 16 1-13

Continuing our whirlwind tour of “salvation history” and our theme of God’s choosing, we’re looking more closely this week at God’s choice to have David anointed as the next king of Israel. We’re studying 1 Samuel 16:1-13, the story of that event. Some questions on the text are here. Here are a few notes on the text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We are moving a little further into the Deuteronomistic history. We think this means that the text reflects several layers of concerns, and interpretations of events that color the text. We sense the ambivalence or even regret about the Israelites’ decision to call for a monarchy – we suspect, particularly, in light of negative experiences with the later kings. We hear echoes of regret for and blame of Israelite unfaithfulness that had the Babylonian exile as a consequence. It might help us to think of the text as a record of the past as told by someone who has learned some bitter lessons about its meaning from what happened later.

Last week we saw the choice of Saul, announced publicly at a ceremony at Mizpah after the use of lots. Saul has to be sought, and is found “hiding in the stuff” – we are led to think, maybe military equipment. After his anointing, there are several stories of military exploits, including two that present the justification for Saul’s “rejection” as king by God. At Gilgal, Saul offers sacrifices before Samuel arrives to officiate (1 Samuel 13:8-15). There is further fighting with the Philistines, with some success but also with some questionable decisions. Then Saul receives direct instructions from God via Samuel to annihilate the Amalekites – an authorization of the “ban” or herem. Saul doesn’t do it (1 Samuel 15). In today’s world this might strike readers as admirable restraint, but in Saul’s context it’s straightforward failure to carry out the assigned mission.

Samuel is angry and later grieves over Saul. God regrets that He made Saul king over Israel (1 Samuel 15:35).

These events bring us to our text, the narrative that begins chapter 16, in which God tells Samuel to stop grieving over Saul and go anoint someone else whom God has seen, and Samuel ultimately follows God’s instructions.

The context calls attention to the importance of faithfully carrying out divine instructions, and contrasts the behavior of Saul and Samuel. It also calls attention to appearance, to humans and to God – but in a curious and somewhat ambiguous way.

Following this episode, in which we readers meet David for the first time, we keep meeting David, as does Saul. And then, Saul gets sorrier and sorrier that he ever met David, and more and more paranoid. And then David goes on the run, and there is a long stretch of warring and the erosion of Saul’s position and the rise of David’s, until the final death of Saul and Jonathan in battle with the Philistines.

Then, in the second half of the book of Samuel – 2 Samuel – we have the story of the rise and fall of David the king and his court. Nothing is simple in this story.

1 Samuel 16:1-13 is the lectionary’s Old Testament selection for the Fourth Sunday in Lent (A) – paired with John 9, the story of the man born blind. [See what they did there? With two stories that emphasize sight?]

CLOSER READING: In v1, God speaks to Samuel directly; using the word “rejected” referring to Saul reminds us that the Israelites earlier “rejected” YHWH from being THEIR king; now God has literally “seen my (to me) king” among Jesse’s sons. [NRSV translates that God has “provided” a king, which suggests that God has actively and intentionally made this king available; that sense seems absent from the Hebrew text.]

Samuel objects in v2, with a series of verbs: I walk, Saul hears, he kills me. So God suggests a subterfuge: take a heifer, say you’re coming to sacrifice to Me.

In v3, God will show Samuel what to do, and Samuel will anoint whomever God says. We might recall that God has given similar instructions before, to Abraham, when God told him to walk to a land God would show him (Genesis 12:1).

Critically and vitally, Samuel follows God’s instructions throughout the story.

In v4, the town elders of Bethlehem are visibly fearful – as I read “trembled” – at Samuel’s approach. Maybe because the most recent thing Samuel has done, back in the last chapter, has been to chop up the king of the Amalekites. He is not exactly a safe character. The reassuring exchange of the word shalom helps.

We don’t know precisely what Samuel does to sanctify Jesse and his sons. We also don’t know whether the same sanctification procedure is carried out on the missing youngest son who shows up in v12.

Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab (“My God, father” or “… is father”), is tall and also, we gather, handsome – echoing the description of Saul. Samuel thinks he’s the one – until God specifically tells him not to pay attention to that, and then adds the famous line “for man looketh on the outward appearance, but God looketh on the heart” Literally, humans look/see to the eyes while God sees to the heart. We’ll recall that back in the book of Judges, everyone did what was good in their own eyes. This text keeps reminding us that looking to the eyes often works out badly for people.

God’s rejection, or, not choosing, is insistent and applies to all Jesse’s sons, it seems. As the story nears its climax, there are echoes of the story of Saul’s election: “is the man here?” In this case, no, he’s not here; he’s also not hiding, although it almost seems as if he’s being hidden, by his father; in this case, he’s off grazing the flock.

Samuel’s response to this information is that they will not “turn aside” until he arrives – the language of “turning aside” is a recurrent symbol of unfaithfulness, so it reminds us that Samuel IS following God’s instructions, and IS walking in God’s ways.

The description of Jesse’s youngest – a word that could mean littlest – emphasizes his appearance. Especially his beautiful eyes. People, who look to the eyes, would presumably be drawn to this son. Surely this profound irony is not a coincidence?

In the next verse, when the spirit of the Holy God rushes to David from that day on, we learn this littlest son’s name. The anointing in the middle of his brothers as well as his good looks might make us think David has things in common with Joseph, the favored son of the patriarch Jacob. Joseph became a favorite of Pharaoh. David will not be a favorite of Saul’s for long.

Regular church- or synagogue-goers, or regular Bible readers, will know a lot about David, and will probably have heard a lot about David throughout their lives. This makes it easy not to notice this: nothing in this text tells us what God sees in David. There is no description of David’s heart, or God’s assessment of David, or David’s and God’s proximity to one another’s hearts. We only know that God has rejected Saul (his first choice), has seen him a (new) king, and this is him. This lack of actual knowledge on our parts, certainly at this point, seems important.

Images: Shofar window of Synagogue Enschede, by Kleuske, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Dura Synagogue WC3 David anointed by Samuel,” reworked by Marsyas, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: