Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Serving Two Masters (I Samuel 7-12)

Samuel judges Israel throughout his life. During this time he persuades the people to give up their idolatry and worship the Lord exclusively. When they are attacked by the Philistines, he prays to the Lord and gives the people a decisive victory. But he finally grows old. Though he has served the people his entire life, they do not want his sons to succeed him as judges.
Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.
Thus begins what for me is perhaps the most confusing and conflicting few chapters of the Bible I have come across so far.

Samuel is deeply offended by the request. He pours out his heart to the Lord, who is quite sympathetic.
They have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. Now then, obey their voice; only you shall solemnly warn them and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.
Their rejection of Samuel’s house is the embodiment of their continuous rejection of their rightful King. And yet, in a surprising and unprecedented decision, the Lord commands Samuel to consent.

So he warns the people of what the rule of a king looks like. It will mean stiff taxation, heavy-handed authoritarianism, and the loss of their best and brightest men and women to fight in his wars and run his estate. But the people don’t care – they are jealous of the glorious national pride of the surrounding kingdoms.

Samuel asks the Lord, and he instructs him to anoint Saul the Benjaminite as the first king of Israel. Saul is a rather underwhelming character. He was only in the area because some donkeys ran off, and a servant talked him into paying Samuel to ask the Lord where to find them. When the time comes for his coronation, he is found hiding behind the baggage. But the Lord has a preference for humble beginnings, and reluctant Saul is crowned king. As his first act, he routs a besieging Ammonite army bent on committing cruel atrocities to poor Jabesh-Gilead.

Samuel then gives a farewell speech protesting their ingratitude, and warning them of how dangerous a desire this was. The Lord thunders agreement, and for a moment the people second-guess themselves. They cry out to Samuel to intercede on their behalf, and his response is the absolute paragon of a Biblical mediator.
Do not be afraid…For the Lord will not forsake his people, for his great name's sake, because it has pleased the Lord to make you a people for himself. Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you, and I will instruct you in the good and the right way…But if you still do wickedly, you shall be swept away, both you and your king.
The people may have their king, but they must take great pains to serve the Lord first and foremost. But the whole thing is rather confusing. The book of Judges strongly implies that the people really do need a king. The very fact that the Lord consents, despite their dubious motives, reinforces this. And are the motives really so bad? Yes they want to be like all the other nations, but Samuel’s sons don’t seem that great. Didn’t the Lord cut off Eli’s house because of his wicked sons?

Then again, this whole notion of a king of (what ought to be) monotheistic Israel is troublesome. Weren’t kings in the ancient near East deified? They certainly were in Egypt, Persia, and Rome – and the psalmist says of rulers “you are gods.” There seems to be an intrinsic tension between serving a lord and worshiping the Lord – between revering a god and honoring the true and living God.

Anyway, despite these deep-seated contradictions, Israel now has a king. They are no longer free to do what is right in their own eyes, but their loyalty is split between the will of their sovereign and their Lord.

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"They are no longer free to do what is right in their own eyes. Their loyalty is split between the will of their sovereign and their Lord."

I wouldn't call the times of the Judges when they had "freedom to do what is right in their own eyes" as anything good or positive. Israel needed a king - they were a constantly lawless people. What they wanted was not just any king, but a king like the other nations. Saul fit the bill perfectly.

So were their loyalties split between the king and Jehovah? I don't think so - I don't know that they had any loyalties to Jehovah to begin with.

And were kings in the East deified? Great point: indeed they were. And Israel would blindly follow every king they had except for the truly Divine King who was born in a stable.

Good thoughts. I'll be visiting here often.

Shhhh! Dave! You're giving away the ending. Here I take great pains not to talk about Jesus in this post (as the one who brings these contradictions into stunning unity) and you go and spill the beans. ;-)

To say they don't have any loyalties to the Lord is overly harsh - David does, Abiathar does, Jonathan does, Samuel does, and we can presume the average Joe Israelite ranges from solid devotion to total apathy to utter idolatry. The point is that they are supposed to be loyal to the Lord, but now they have a king they must be loyal to as well. Hopefully the king and the Lord will want the same things - otherwise they're in a different sort of pickle than they were in the age of the Judges (which was the absolute low point so far).

I gotta write some kind of defense for (and against) the average Joe Schmoe Israelite.

I was talking to a friend this weekend about the opera Moses und Aron by the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, a Bohemian Austrian Jewish convert to Christianity. This opera depicts the conversation that Moses and Aaron had after the golden calf incident. Aaron defends his actions by explaining that God was invisible, and the people could not serve an invisible God. All he was doing, Aaron argues, is giving them a physical representation of this God they are trying to follow in the wilderness. Remember that Aaron’s words to the people had been “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!" and "Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD.”

The point of the reference is that idolatry for the Israelites is sometimes not a matter of serving the gods of the other nations, but in demanding that God be a little more physical, a little more near, a little more touchable. There is a reference at some point to their making an idol out of the bronze snake in the wilderness, a physical object that the LORD himself had used to heal them.

And here they demand a king to lead them. I would propose that this is the continuation of their wrestling with trying to follow an intangible God, and their demand that he make himself tangible. In a sense, one could say that Christ eventually becomes the ultimate idol, the redemption of their constant inability to follow an intangible God.

Also something to remember is that Deuteronomy gives some rules that kings must follow - so this was not an unforeseen event. Given, we can talk about when exactly Deut was written, but as far as the narrative is concerned it was written before Saul showed up, so God expected that one day they would have a king.

"To say they don't have any loyalties to the Lord is overly harsh"

At the time this was written, we don't have any reason to think that there was too much piety amongst the Israelites - this was before all the great Old Testament saints you listed.

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