Monday, January 10, 2011
The anointing of Saul
I Samuel starts off with a simple tale which arouses our interest and sympathy. A man has two wives. One has borne children, but the other is barren. Her name is Hannah and he loves her the most. This prompts the less-loved wife to “provoke her sore, for to make her fret, because the Lord had shut up her womb”. Hannah goes to the temple and prays for a man-child, vowing that she’ll surrender her firstborn to the Lord. There are parts of the world where this still happens, not always in the best interests of the child, if the prayed-for miracle happens. Anyway it works for Hannah, and she gives Samuel to the old priest Eli as soon as he is weaned. This was the part of the story which touched me most. I suppose I felt equally abandoned when I was sent to boarding school at the age of 6.
So identifying with the boy Samuel I’m looking for kindness in this story, whether it comes from my guardian Eli, or from the Lord, who speaks to me in the middle of the night. Not yet knowing the Lord’s ways, I run to Eli in my bare feet and nightshirt to say “Here am I; for thou calledst me.” After having his sleep interrupted three times, Eli advises me to say “Speak: for thy servant heareth,” so that the Lord may speak to me. What a bombshell! He starts off like this: “Behold, I will do a thing in Israel, at which both the ears of everyone that heareth it shall tingle.” He goes on to tell me that the house of Eli is condemned by its iniquity, which “shall not be purged with sacrifice nor offering for ever.” The reason? “because his sons made themselves vile, and he restrained them not.” I lie there sleepless the rest of the night, wondering how I’m going to break the news to Eli when he asks. Is this visitation to tell me something about God? No, it’s a story-teller’s device. I cannot imagine any kind of god introducing itself this way to an innocent child.
Still, I seem to survive the trauma of this ear-tingling visitation, because the tale goes on to say: “And Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him, and did let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan even to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was established to be a prophet of the Lord.” From the narrative point of view this is acceptable, because as far as I can see the whole point of the Samuel story is to fill in the details of a succession. It’s about who leads the people of Israel. So Eli is discredited because of his sons and his failure to be a good father, but Samuel is Eli’s godson and a good man, so he establishes legitimacy so that in later years he is worthy to anoint Saul as the king, and David after that. The Lord would have preferred a succession of prophets but the people are clamouring for a king. So they shall have a king. As Samuel points out accusingly, the Lord God of Israel has protected the people till now, especially delivering them out of the hand of the Egyptians: “and [yet] ye have this day rejected your God, who himself saved you out of all your adversities and your tribulations; and ye have said unto him, ‘Nay, but set a king over us’.” Prophets are by definition right, and the people are always wrong, unless they walk in the ways of the Lord, and then they may become prophets themselves.
How Samuel and Saul meet up is described in detail. Saul is a “choice young man, and a goodly”, but that doesn’t mean that God speaks to him directly. That job is reserved for a prophet, although the text explains that the common people didn’t use the term “prophet”, only “seer”—I suppose this meant fortune-tellers. Saul gets lost after travelling far and wide looking for his father’s asses, and (to cut the story short) he and his servant find “young maidens going out to draw water, and [he] said unto them, ‘Is the seer here?’” So Saul goes to meet Samuel, either for help in finding the asses, or in finding his way back home, I’m not sure which. Samuel has been tipped off by the Lord that the man who will be king is going to pay a visit, though he’s a Benjamite, from the smallest of the twelve tribes. Samuel has his cook prepare a shoulder of mutton for Saul, invites him to stay the night. The next morning he gets Saul alone to anoint him and kiss him, on the Lord’s instructions. He tells him where to find the asses, and to expect certain encounters with men carrying various things by way of identification. And he tells Saul that “the Spirit of the Lord will come upon thee, and thou shalt prophesy with them, and shall be turned into another man.” Then Samuel announces to the children of Israel that Saul is now their king. They take note that Saul is head and shoulders taller than anyone else. “And all the people shouted, and said, ‘God save the king’.”
King Saul becomes a popular hero for standing up to the Ammonites and Philistines, smiting and slaying them with tireless energy. But he needs Samuel to deliver God’s rebuke when he disobeys, for example when he spares the king of the Amalekites:
Then said Samuel, “Bring ye hither to me Agag the king of the Amalekites.”
And Agag came to him delicately. And Agag said, “Surely the bitterness of death is past.”
And Samuel said, “As thy sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women.”
And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal.
To me, the book so far has one sole purpose, to tell the continuing history of the Children of Israel, whose greatest asset is their Lord God. If I hadn’t read the book of Genesis, which declares that this same God created heaven and earth, I’d think he was just a local god, who would be unknown to the people except when he speaks via the prophets.
As we have just seen, this same God gives instructions which conflict with the conscience and good sense of his people. Even I was shocked, as a ten-year-old. I didn’t understand that my headmaster, Monty Brummell-Hicks, was Machiavellian in teaching such young children this part of Scripture. It was to prepare us for the arbitrary commands of hierarchical superiors, for the smooth administration of a far-flung Empire; whilst provoking our natural sense of kindness and fair-play, and making us think. And when we rebelled against this representation of God, who seemed so much crueler than most human beings, the trump card was laid before us. Now we would understand that the Old Testament people had the wrong idea about God. That’s why God had to send Jesus Christ, so that God could be redefined as Love!
But reading the story again, in maturity, I see that it’s building up to the reigns of David and his son Solomon, which I understand were the high points of Israel’s history, to the point where the Gospel writers were at pains to present Jesus as a “son of David”, through the lineage of Joseph. They must have thought this was important, because it blurs the other lineage, through the Virgin birth. Well, I suppose Jesus could have a biological father and a “God”father. The clear aim is to “sell” Jesus as the Messiah, to as many people as possible. It backfires of course because those who believe that Jesus is of the royal house of David, he who killed Goliath dead with a single stone, will also believe that Jesus will kick out the Romans. They will be disappointed when he gets crucified by them. But never mind those people! They never bought Christianity because it hadn’t yet been invented. St Paul did that, and showed that a crucified Christ was someone to be proud of, not ashamed.
I’m ignorant and no scholar, but it almost seems as if Christianity has laid claim to the Old Testament for purposes of the traditional marketing trick, “Before” and “After”. Old T, New T. Spot the difference.
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The above is based on I Samuel, Chapters 1—10.
The lower illustration shows Samuel anointing Saul.
Posted by Vincent at 2:27 pm