The God of the Old Testament Revisited

 

My daughter, Merideth, who teaches fifth graders shared on Facebook what she said was a great way to end the school year.  They were studying the Persian Wars and one of her students raised her hand and asked, “Wait…who is the bad guy?” This, she said, led to a most spirited and well thought-out debate.  She said that she was beyond proud of her class, especially when they came to the conclusion that it depends on who is telling the story.  That’s holds true when it comes to the book of Samuel.

 




 

 

I know a great many people who simply don’t like the God they find in the Old Testament.  Reading the passage of 1st Samuel that immediately precedes our text for today raises that specter.   The difficulty comes, unfortunately. From our tendency to understand Biblical material from Genesis through Chronicles to be historical books – as if they were compiled so later generations would know ‘what actually happened’.  We, like every other nation or people, want to know about our past, about its founders and heroes. The editors who brought together all this material as it had been passed down to them in the forms of stories and songs, repeated generation to generation, no doubt had the same desire. The question raised by recent generations however is just how accurate is this information. The primary story told by the Old Testament begins with the pre-historical creation and ends with the story of the Babylonian exile reported in the book of Kings that occurred in the 6th century before Christ.  The books of Samuel carries that piece of the story in which Israel displaces its loose confederation of tribes held together by a series of Judges, Samuel himself being the last, and becoming a monarchy beginning with the first King, Saul.

 

My daughter, Merideth, who teaches fifth graders shared on Facebook what she said was a great way to end the school year.  They were studying the Persian Wars and one of her students raised her hand and asked, “Wait…who is the bad guy?” This, she said, led to a most spirited and well thought-out debate.  She said that she was beyond proud of her class, especially when they came to the conclusion that it depends on who is telling the story.  That’s holds true when it comes to the book of Samuel.

 

In the book of Samuel there are serious inconsistencies that raise questions about both the historisity of Samuel and the sources in which this history has been preserved. None of the material in its present form was contemporary with the events.  The story of the birth and vocation of Samuel at the beginning of 1st Samuel is regarded by many as legendary because of a number of obviously unhistorical features. There are two different accounts of the rejection of Saul by Samuel. The first story (1 Samuel 13) describes Samuel’s action as motivated by Saul’s assumption of the prerogatives of the priesthood.  In the second story (chapter 15 which precedes our text for today), Samuel is motivated by Saul’s failure to observe the ethic of the holy war. We tend to look on this material as literal history rather than seeking to understand the message the editor is seeking to pass on to the next generations.

 

There must have been some reason why Samuel was important enough to be remembered for a major role in the establishment of the monarchy.  His leadership is exercised in war and law, but his authority is basically religious, mostly prophetic with some features of priestly authority.  He is the spokesperson for Yahweh in the election both of Saul and of David yet at first Samuel is hostile to the whole idea of a monarchy then he is seen as favoring it.

 

In the pro-monarchic account of the rise of Saul, Samuel is an obscure village seer. The institution of the monarchy and the election of the king occur according to the will of Yahweh as revealed to Samuel. The story of the anointing, however, has no story of accession to complete it; instead, there is the account of Saul’s victory over the Ammonites. Saul is chosen king as were the judges—the leaders of the Israelites during their conquest of the land of Canaan—were chosen, by a charismatic display of military courage and leadership.

 

The antimonarchic account presents a different picture of the kingship and of Saul and Samuel. In this account Samuel is a figure known through “all Israel”; his authority rests on his position as a Judge. The institution of kingship comes not from divine revelation but from the request of the elders of Israel, and this request is treated by Samuel as rebellion against Yahweh. The king is chosen not by divine election but by lot, implying that no special qualities were required, and the bashful candidate has to be summoned from a hiding place. The system of the judges was rejected by the Israelites not because of its failure but because of their worldliness.

 

Leaders in Israel were evidently torn between the threat to Israel posed by the Philistines and the promise that the new political system, alien to religious and national traditions, offered against this threat. This internal division in Israel is reflected in the person of Samuel, who stood with most Israelites on both sides of the question.

 

Very little in Samuel can be tested against ancient documents or archaeological finds. We can’t prove that Samuel, or Saul for that matter, ever existed.  Is the story of David and Goliath a heroic legend?  Was David complicit in the death of Abner or others and the story told in 2nd Samuel simply gratuitous propaganda?  Most reasonably we can best conclude that we are reading biographical rather than historical material and the primary subject is God.  The story isn’t so much about Samuel’s virtues, Saul’s defects or David’s attributes as it is about how God acted during this time of Israel’s life.  The Books of Samuel are sermons not historical lessons.  The editor who compiled this material wants to share with us that there is divine intention in Israel’s past and morals to be drawn, lessons applicable to his readers and to us.

 

 

If, as we imagine, the editors finished their work in the time of the Babylonian captivity the Jews were suffering depressing and humiliating conditions of slavery.  Having lost their homes and their homeland they were exiled hundreds of miles from Palestine.  Their temple and their capital city lay in ruins, they had lost their political independence and the Davidic dynasty.  And it is there they receive, through these books, the reassuring message that God was still active, if behind the scenes, and still had their best interests at heart.  Buoyed by the hope that, in God’s good time, the Messiah would lead Israel into an era of peace and prosperity they were charged with looking for the signs of God’s presence, obeying God’s laws and avoiding the disobedience that had brought God’s displeasure and discipline upon them.  And this message, so essential to the Jews in exile was just as important for the Jewish people in the ages to come.  Trust God. Obey God. Look expectantly for God’s Messiah.

 

 

1 Samuel 15:34 – 16:13  34Then Samuel went to Ramah; and Saul went up to his house in Gibeah of Saul. 35Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel.

16The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” 2Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ 3Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” 4Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” 5He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

6When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” 7But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 8Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 9Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 10Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” 11Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” 12He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” 13Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

 

Chapter 15 begins telling how Samuel, speaking for God, charged Saul to utterly destroy the Amalikites, property and all.  Everything alive, men, women, children and babes in arms, herds and flocks, camels and donkeys are to be annihilated.  This is the kind of thing many of us find so discomforting about the God of the Old Testament.  Saul and his army killed everyone except for the Amalekite King Agag and the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat beasts and lambs and, as verse 9 tells us everything worth keeping was saved but anything that was useless and of no value was destroyed.  God tells Samuel that he repented of making Saul king because of his disobedience.  When Samuel meets Saul, Saul says “I have carried out the Lord’s instructions.” To which Samuel responds: “What then is this belating of the sheep in my ears?”  Saul says it was his troops that took them from the Amalekites, the best of the live stock—to sacrifice to the Lord of course.  The question is “Why then did you not obey the Lord?”  “To obey is better than sacrifice.” “Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you as king.”

 

Our text begins with Saul and Samuel parting company.  Yet Samuel continue to grieve over Saul’s disobedience.

 

The first attempt at establishing a monarchy is a failure.  God could have let the experimentation with monarchy end as abruptly as it had begun.  Instead God tries again, telling Samuel to fill his horn with oil because he had another candidate in mind. This time the man who would in due course replace Saul was from start to finish God’s choice.  God isn’t responding to rebellious demands by Israel’s leaders.  God chooses the tribe from which the king will come, not the tribe of Benjamin from which Saul came but from Judah.  He choose the family, Jesse’s.  He chooses the individual who, like Saul was not easily found.  Is there a lesson there for us—that the person God intends to us may not be the most accessible.  As we read the story of finding the right man among Jesse’s children nor should miss the point that the least likely person in human terms was God’s choice.

 

But the most important qualification for the office comes at the last of the episode: 13Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.” Here, in the Old Testament, and even into the Gospels with Jesus’ coming up from the Jordan with the Spirit resting on him, we find that the Spirit of God is intended to set special people apart for a special task.  From Pentecost on the Holy Spirit is given to all.  In both cases the indwelling Spirit is not a possession to be owned with pride but a power that enables one to work for the benefit and service of others.  Leadership by the power of the Spirit is not meant as a gift to an individual, to feed one’s own arrogance and vanity but as a gift to all the people.

 

 

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