October 23, 2012 0

Episode 13 – 1 Samuel: Of Prophets and Kings

By in Blog, Podcast


In my left hand is a crumpled Target receipt detailing the purchase of Honest Tea Half & Half and disposable razors. In my right hand is a bible. Let’s do a show about… THE BIBLE


Hello, and welcome to BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. I’m Josh Way. If you’re new to the show, the premise is simple: we are looking at the content of the Judeo-Christian Bible through the lenses of HISTORY and LITERATURE. That is – the people, places, and moments which produced the texts of the bible, with special attention to the genre, format, and meaning of the texts themselves. Sometimes we pore over individual chapters or small bits of text, and sometimes we cover lots of material in one swoop. Today we swoop. But first, a quick recap:

Judges made the case that Israel needed a king, and then Ruth dropped the name of a candidate – David, the son of Jesse, the son of Obed, the son of Ruth. The book of Samuel – a single work divided into two scrolls – gives us the goods on David and a whole lot more. So why isn’t the book called “David?” Because the story is first and foremost not about David himself, but about a prophet named Samuel. And so, before we can dive into this biblical literary smorgasbord, we need to talk about a new concept here on BOOK: prophets.

When most people think of biblical prophecy, if they do at all, they think of something mystical and predictive. Some guy goes into a holy trance and predicts some cataclysmic future event. And, to be sure, there is prophecy like that in the bible (though far less of it than you might think). In actuality, the prophetic tradition of Israel as represented in the bible is far more timely and nuanced. Perhaps a better way to describe this kind of prophecy is “inspired punditry,” as most prophets delivered urgent insights concerning current events.

At the most basic level, a “prophet” was one who delivered (or claimed to deliver) a message on behalf of Israel’s God. And, despite what we might imagine, these messages were not typically arbitrary, detached religious warnings, they were urgent and relevant, ripped from the headlines. The first biblical prophet to be identified as such was Moses, who didn’t predict future events, but did deliver words from Israel’s God to the people in the form of the law, directly addressing their deep identity crisis. And that’s the bottom-line requirement for a prophet: faithfully delivering a message which addresses a current crisis. Beyond that, prophets are far more diverse and mercurial than other biblical types. In fact, another defining characteristic of prophets is their lack of common defining characteristics. As we shall see.

So what does all of this have to do with King David? There is a particular and dominant strand of prophecy in the bible which emerged and developed at the same time as Israel began to seek a king. And this was not coincidence but an organic sort of check and balance, as the prophets would be the ones to challenge and humble the kings of Israel lest they be consumed by their power. We tend to imagine prophets wandering the streets, angrily confronting random citizens in their holy fervor, but it’s more appropriate to history that prophets would have directed their missives directly at thrones. Samuel is the first of these royal prophets, and his origin story (referred to in biblical tradition as a “calling”) is the subject of the first few chapters of the first of two books bearing his name.

The setting of Samuel builds on some familiar themes: Israel is still in the period of the Judges, civil and moral chaos rule the day, and the High Priest is a spineless old man named Eli with two “worthless” sons who pig out on sacrificial meat and fornicate with the women who work outside the tabernacle. A man from the tribe of Ephraim named Elkanah and his barren wife Hannah visit Eli to petition the LORD for a child. Their prayer is answered and her womb is “opened,” signaling to seasoned bible readers like us that this child will be noteworthy in Israel’s history. Hannah is so grateful for the gift of her son, named Samuel, that she dedicates him to service in the tabernacle. She actually gives him away to be trained as a priest.

That’s the setup: an ineffectual high priest, worthless sons, an opened womb, and a young boy training to be a priest. Then we read this in 1 Samuel chapter 3:

[1] Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD in the presence of Eli. And the word of the LORD was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.

Samuel is “ministering to the LORD,” which simply means he is doing his job in the tabernacle tent – training under Eli to perform priestly duties. Then the author states the crisis of the book as clearly as possible: “The word of the LORD was rare in those days.” As we know from the Torah, disorder is the problem to which the “word of God” is the remedy. In Genesis 1, in the creation song, God speaks ten times and chaos gives way to order and life. In Exodus 20, Moses delivers the “ten words” from God to the lost and wandering Israelites. And now, here in Israel’s fresh crisis, it’s time for some new “words.” When the high priest himself can’t be trusted to get Israel back on track, something extraordinary must happen. This is where the prophet comes in.

What most distinguishes a prophet from any other Israelite “type” (priest, king, teacher, etc.) is the criteria and method by which they “become” prophets. A king, as we will soon observe, was subjected to a very rigorous and multi-faceted vetting process, and – not unlike our modern political environment – only certain people with certain connections were even eligible for the job. Prophets, on the other hand, were “called” out of some other life, often just for a brief season, and with no criteria other than whether or not what they said turned out to be true. Anyone could be a prophet, and in this case a young priest-in-training was about to find himself with a new vocation.

In chapter three, Samuel hears the audible voice of God giving him an urgent message for Israel. You might assume at this point in the literary presentation that the message would be “David is to be king!,” but you would be wrong. The “word” is this: God is going to cut off the house of Eli the high priest, and end their tenure in the tabernacle. And sure enough, this happens in the very next chapter. An army of Philistines – Israel’s chief enemy at this point in history, about whom we will say more soon – capture the ark of the covenant and slay the worthless sons of Eli, and the tragic news of these events shocks Eli who falls backward in his chair, breaks his neck, and also dies. Well, OK. Now we’re getting somewhere!

Samuel grows up and serves Israel as high priest and judge – all the while maintaining his status as a prophet, faithfully delivering the “word of God” for whatever Israel’s present crisis happens to be. In chapter 8, the crisis of Israel’s leadership comes to a head and the people demand a king. And the response of the prophet is a resounding “NO.” Samuel warns that a king would only exploit the people of Israel while inflating his own power. The people persist, Samuel speaks once more on behalf of the LORD, and the answer this time is “WELL, OK.”

This all might seem strange given the trajectory of the literature up to this point: Israel is in disorder, Israel needs a king, and David has already been named as the guy for the job. Why then is the prophet of the LORD – and by implication the LORD himself – so opposed to the idea? This is setting up the tension, to which we’ve already hinted, between prophets and kings which will characterize the rest of Israel’s national history. And before we move on to the gory details of Israel’s first kingdom, let’s take a moment to distill this prophet/king tension by means of a cheap and flimsy analogy. Think of kings as the conservatives of the ancient world, and prophets as the liberals.

Again, this is an imperfect and risky analogy because of the likelihood that you have already decided you hate one of those two groups of people. But it’s still a convenient shorthand for understanding this important biblical tension in familiar terms. So here we go: On the right, we have kings, primarily concerned with the establishment of authority and appealing to the old traditions and laws. On the left are prophets, primarily interested in ministering to the needs of the moment, appealing to new ideas and new understandings of old ideas. To the kings, God is personal and present, he’s here and he’s on our side. To prophets, God is elusive, transcendent, unwilling to be contained within any system. The god of the king is the source of his power and authority, while the god of the prophet is a challenge and threat to both.

So anyway, that’s the weak analogy. If it wasn’t helpful, go ahead and forget about it right away.

Moving on: God gives the greenlight to Israel’s king initiative, and it’s time to make a monarch. Easy, right? Go find David and give him the crown. Well, not quite… Israel picks their first king, and it’s not David. It’s a guy named Saul, a big fellow from the tiny tribe of Benjamin. What is going on? Who is Saul? Where is David? Just like in Ruth and so many other bible texts, this is story about subverted expectations. Saul is the king you would choose if you were judging by traditional standards and outward appearance, and David is the right one. Israel needs to make the mistake before they can get it right.

And here’s where we need to add a little historical yeast to this literary dough. To understand why Israel looks to Saul, we need to say a little bit about the Philistines. Unlike many of Israel’s other enemies from this period (Moab, Canaan, Edom, Ammon), the Philistines were not distant semitic cousins with Torah connections to the twelve tribes. The Philistines were true enemies, invaders from “beyond the sea” who had come to the land around 1200 BCE. They were physically large people, fierce fighters, and – at this particular moment in history – they were so aggressive and so numerous that they were actually ruling over the Israelites. 1 Samuel 13 says that their presence in the land was so overwhelming they had managed to outlaw Israelite blacksmiths, thereby robbing Israel of its weaponry. If an Israelite wanted his gardening tools sharpened, he had to go to a Philistine smithy.

And so Saul, who stood head and shoulders above the average Israelite, was a media-friendly candidate. In 1 Samuel 9, the prophet “anoints” Saul, the first of many steps in the kinging process, and perhaps the most significant. The protective anointing of the head with oil was and remains a common practice for people living in harsh desert conditions. In the case of a royal candidate, “anointing” symbolized the selection and protection of the throne-bound individual by god himself. Saul is anointed and celebrated as Israel’s first king, but it doesn’t take long for things to go sour. In particular, the new king commits two grievous errors in 1 Samuel chapter 13.

The first blunder might not look like a blunder at first glance, as it involves a victory against the Philistines on the battlefield. But after the small victory, Saul turns up the volume on his anti-Philistine rhetoric, provoking the enemy to amass an army of tens of thousands of chariots and troops against Israel in the Jordan Valley. The people of Israel are panic-stricken, they begin hiding in ditches and cisterns, and the text says that Saul’s actions made them a “stench” to the Philistines. That word “stench” is our literary clue to remember Genesis 34 and the incident at Shechem, where the murderous behavior of Jacob’s sons put a stain on Israel’s reputation that lasted for generations. Saul is mismanaging Israel’s reputation at a time when their very survival is in question.

The second blunder is more blatant. Saul, wracked with anxiety over the immanent Philistine attack, grows impatient and crosses the line between king and priest: he makes his own peace offering on the eve of battle in Samuel’s absence, a clear violation of Torah law. This is the last straw, and the prophet declares that God will “cut off” the household of Saul and give the throne to another. But as with most of these biblical events (and historical realities in general), there is no such thing as a smooth transition. Saul will stay on the throne for years, and only his death will clear the way for the new king.

And that new king, of course, is David. David is finally introduced and, perhaps in atonement for the delay, the author introduces the heck out of him. In 1 Samuel 16 and 17, we get three tales in a row in which young David, son of Jesse is introduced for the first time. Scholars have suggested that these represent three different traditions about David which have been edited together in the final document. That’s not outside the realm of possibility, but whatever the case I think the author (or editor) of Samuel has intentionally lumped these passages together for the three distinct insights they give about David’s character.

The first David intro is a kind of Cinderella story, and makes the themes of subverted expectations even more explicit. Samuel comes to the home of Jesse with his anointing horn in hand, expecting God to reveal the new king to him. One by one he considers David’s older, mightier brothers, but each one is passed by until David himself, the young shepherd boy, is revealed to be the chosen one, and he is promptly anointed. There’s a good reason this story should come first in David’s biography, as it allows for no question regarding his status as the chosen dude.

The second story sees Saul tormented and kept awake at night by a “harmful spirit,” some sort of sickness or depression. One of his attendants tells him about the young son of Jesse, a singer-songwriter named David who can soothe a troubled soul. Saul sends for the boy, who comforts him and enters his service as armor bearer. This tale accomplishes two things: it establishes David as a sensitive, creative soul, a man in stark contrast to Saul, and it puts David inside the halls of power, placing him that much closer to the throne.

The third David introduction is one of the most famous of all bible stories, David versus Goliath. Here’s the setup from 1 Samuel 17 and verse 4:

[4] And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. [5] He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail, and the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. [6] And he had bronze armor on his legs, and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. [7] The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron. And his shield-bearer went before him. [8] He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. [9] If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants. But if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.” [10] And the Philistine said, “I defy the ranks of Israel this day. Give me a man, that we may fight together.” [11] When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.

Goliath is a Philistine warrior, a giant man (anywhere from seven to nine feet tall, depending on which manuscript you choose), and an embodiment of the pagan threat to Israel’s survival. He steps out from the battle lines to bellow threats against Saul and the Israelites, daring anyone to answer his challenge and meet him in combat. Saul – still king and ultimately responsible to answer this kind of champion’s challenge – is too scared to act. Everyone is, except for the young errand boy David who is running supplies for his brothers’ military unit. David volunteers to face Goliath, and Saul is just desperate enough to let him take a shot. Armed with only a sling and five stones, David runs to the battlefield and knocks the giant down with a pebble to the forehead. While Goliath is down, David takes the Philistine’s own sword and chops off his head. Whee!

The three David prologues reveal three things about him: 1) he is anointed, meaning that God has chosen him despite his unworthy appearance, 2) he is a conduit of peace and healing through his music and poetry, and 3) his naive faith makes him an effective Philistine killer. At the same time, each of these attributes is in stark contrast to the character of Saul. Saul’s anointing (in chapter 10) was weird, rushed, and had to be hidden from his family, while David was anointed publicly in front of his dumbstruck father and brothers. Saul is gruff and boastful, while David is sensitive and prayerful. And lastly, Saul is paralyzed by fear in the face of danger while David gleefully rushes to face threats, confident that God will deliver him.

After the Goliath incident, David’s fame grows, but Saul remains king. Saul is understandable threatened by a slogan that becomes popular among the people of Israel (18:7):

“Saul has slain his thousands,
and David his tens of thousands”

Saul’s jealousy is inflamed and he becomes obsessed with killing David, and the rightful king becomes a hunted fugitive. Saul’s son Jonathan, a close friend of David, alerts him to the king’s plots and David manages to keep a step ahead. The rest of 1 Samuel is a series of intrigues as Saul hunts David and David escapes. At one point, the current high priest Ahimelech gives aid to David, and Saul orders the murder of the entire priestly family. Another time, David has the jump on Saul in a cave where he is sleeping, but chooses to let him live.

There are many more accounts in the first scroll of Samuel: the death of Samuel, David’s marriages, Saul’s (successful) attempt to communicate with the late Samuel through a medium, and Saul’s own bad death on the battlefield. All of this finally clears the stage for David to take his seat as Israel’s new and greatest king. How does he do? That’s what 2 Samuel is all about…

As literature, 1 Samuel is more than just a detailed historical record (though it is richly detailed and very long). It’s a persuasive text, a comparison between a worthy and an unworthy king, and it effectively gives voice to the central tensions of Israel’s national period, the time after the settlement and the judges. This time, much like the earlier time of Israel’s wandering, is a crisis of identity for Israel. Who may rule over us? Who will rule over us? How will we deal with our neighbors? How will we keep the covenant law? WILL we keep the covenant law? Only if we allow these questions and the sharp disagreements about them among the prophets, kings, and priests of ancient Israel to cast their light and shadow on the text will we learn to read it as a living testimony to human experience rather than some stale, decrepit religious artifact.

This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. And I have been Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast, I urge you to share, blog, like, and tweet it to your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at book@joshway.com. You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and maybe I’ll answer it on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.

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