Saturday, April 26, 2008

1 Samuel 13-16: Where Saul Goes Wrong

Saul does not seem to be working out as king of the Israelites. Remember Samuel's long list of terrible problems that will befall Israel if they take a king? Well, none of these things actually happen. In fact, Kind Saul is a pretty effective ruler as far as we can tell. We don't know much about his domestic policies, but his military adventures all seem to turn out quite well.

Where Saul fails is in attention to the fine print of Mosaic law. He is not impious, and he certainly doesn't get into trouble with the whole Baal/Asgeroth sort of thing, but he forgets or neglects the details, and this really makes God mad.

In Chapter 13, for instance, Saul is trying to defend a strategic area against a powerful Philistine army with only a handful of frightened and inadequately armed men. He figures it might be a good time to make a sacrifice to God. At the the end of the ceremony, though, old Samuel shows up and chews him out, prophesying that Saul's kingship will now fall because of his foolish action. I had to read this passage three times, trying to understand what Saul had done wrong. I think I've figured it out; have you? (answer below)

In Chapter 14, Saul's son Jonathon heroically attacks the Phillistine force and puts them to rout almost single-handedly. It is an amazing victory. After a full day of iron-age combat -- a hell of a workout, by any standard -- Jonathon comes across a honeycomb, and takes a taste. Unbeknownst to him, his father had earlier placed a curse on any man who ate during the daytime before the battle was won. Why? Hard to say. But he did.

In camp that night, God won't talk to Saul, and by casting lots they determine that it is Jonathon's fault. When the honey story comes out, Saul wants to kill Jonathon, but he is disuaded from killing his son, the hero of the hour, when the troops get testy about the idea. So again, he is resisting God's commands.

Next, in Chapter 15, Saul is sent against the Amelekites with the kind of jolly instructions we have become used to:

3Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to
them. Do not spare them: put to death men and women, children and infants,
cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.

Saul takes care of the men, women, children, infants, donkeys, and camels thoroughly enough, but he lets the soldiers hang on to the best specimans of the cattle and sheep so that they can make a great sacrifice. Samuel shows up to tell him that he has blown it again; there were not supposed to be any deviations from his instructions. Keeping the cows and sheep was sinful, says Samuel:

Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed is better than the fat of rams.
23For rebellion is like the sin of divination
and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
he has rejected you as king.

(Keeping in mind that Samuel claims to be essentially the sole conduit for communications from God at this point, incidentally, there are at least two possible interpretations of his increasing irritation with Saul. Be we shall not dwell on this.)

God sends Samuel to Bethlehem to find a better king. He's told to select among the sons of Jesse, but after looking at all seven of Jesse's boys God still hasn't given him a signal. Then he learns that there is an eighth, youngest son out back with the sheep, and of course this underdog child turns out to be The One. Samuel annoints him in a private ceremony. His name is David. You know. David:

David is an excellent harp player. Without knowing that the lad has been annointed by Samuel, Saul's handlers recruit him to play for Saul and help him chill out whenever he is visited by an "evil spirit from God" -- that strange concept again -- which seems to be a kind of depressive episode that started happening after the Amelekite debacle. Saul likes David, and makes him one of his armor-bearers. So, unbeknownst to Saul, he has the guy who has been set up to replace him as one of his closest attendents. Oh, the irony!

Next Week: David... Philistines... I sense an archetypal story coming!

Answer: I think the problem is that Saul has conducted a sacrifice outside of the Tabernacle. All sacrifices are supposed to happen there, overseen by the priests, and by conducting a "field sacrifice" Saul has offended God.


Nichim said...

Samuel annoints David in a private ceremony, right? (Otherwise I can't make sense out of this "unbeknownst to Saul" idea.)

Michael5000 said...

@nichim: Yes! Post adjusted accordingly.

It's a little hard to keep them straight when you're typing. You can't say "Samuel" without "S-a-u-l"....