Preaching with The Storytellers Bible: June 10, 2018

June 4th, 2018

The following is a free excerpt from The CEB Storytellers Bible, a resource which helps readers see the big themes and important truths of the Bible while also guiding them in how to tell these stories in contemporary language. Over the course of four weeks, Ministry Matters will feature excerpts from the Storytellers Bible to match the Sunday lectionary. Read the second excerpt below.

Third Sunday after Pentecost

1 Samuel 8:4-20

The people of Israel demanded a king, like other peoples, and after offering his objections Samuel reluctantly agrees. 

Israel’s relationship with the idea of monarchy shifted constantly. It was a point of major substantive debate on all levels and classes of Israelite society. We find that YHWH too appears ambiguous about the best system of government for this young nation. In Canaan, many of the native peoples were governed in small city-states, kings ruling over walled cities, surrounded by small agricultural villages that provided for the king and looked to him for protection. Israel up to this point was ruled tribally by elders, and in times of national emergency there would emerge a charismatic leader known as a judge.

There was strong hostility to the idea of a king. Many rejected monarchy at first, because for the Israelites to choose a king would constitute a rejection of YHWH. The second objection was that kings were commonly known to rule a hierarchical society in which the common people had few rights and labored to provide the king his opulent lifestyle.

Once before a man had declared himself a king, after the fashion of the Canaanite city-state rulers (see Judg 9). His brother stood on a raised area overlooking the city and called out a story about a group of plants and trees that wanted to make one of their number king.

They asked the olive tree, the fig tree, and the grape vine in turn to be their king. Each had more important things to do, producing fruit for the enjoyment of humanity.

Then they asked the thorn bush, which replied ominously, “Why, certainly I’ll be your king.” The implication here is that those who are not busy producing fruit have time to exert power over others.

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Another time, earlier, a group of elders approached Gideon, a military hero, and asked him to establish a dynasty. He stated emphatically that only YHWH would be their king (see Judg 6–7). But there were always people who believed that Israel needed a more centralized, more stable government. Then the Israelites were defeated by the Philistines. They lost badly—the Philistines destroyed not only Israel’s army, but also its central place of worship and most of its leadership, and most painful of all to the Israelites, the Philistines captured God’s chest, traditionally called the Ark of the Covenant, as a trophy, which they presented to their god, Dagon. Throughout, however, Samuel managed to hold the country together.

But when Samuel grew old and prepared to appoint his incompetent and dishonest sons to govern after him, the elders demanded that Samuel appoint a king. The people, having been decisively defeated and subjugated by the Philistines, now feared that they would once again be left without an effective leader.

Samuel responded angrily, but why did the news upset him so? The narrative informs us that it is YHWH who is angry at Israel’s rejection of him, and Samuel cannot tolerate such unfaithfulness.

Were they not rejecting Samuel and his leadership, too? YHWH’s argument highlights Samuel’s hurt feelings: “They haven’t rejected you [Samuel]. No, they’ve rejected me [YHWH] as king over them” (1 Sam 8:7). YHWH would not need to say as much unless Samuel felt rejected in the first place—which is not to mention the unspoken rejection of Samuel’s worthless sons. Couldn’t there perhaps be some self-interest in Samuel’s displeasure at the people’s request for a king? The line between what YHWH wants and what God’s spokespersons desire is always a difficult one to distinguish. This ambiguity is always present when we look for God’s hand and God’s will to be active in the world.

Samuel reports that the tribal elders have hurt YHWH with their request, and that a king is the worst thing they could want. He gives them a list of all the terrible things a king will do (a list astonishingly similar to the excesses of Solomon, Israel’s third king). A king would take their children to be his soldiers and servants. Their field work would not feed them but would serve the king’s table. He would appropriate the best land, orchards, and vineyards for himself. In effect, a king would make slaves of all his people. However, they refuse to be dissuaded, rejecting YHWH’s and Samuel’s political advice.

So Samuel tells the people that YHWH will grudgingly grant their demand, and they leave satisfied. Of course, after a false start (the first king, Saul), the Israelites choose a king, David, of whom YHWH would say, “Your throne will be established forever” (2 Sam 7:16).

YHWH’s final endorsement of the monarchy leaves us confused. Is monarchy a rejection of YHWH or YHWH’s highest will? Either YHWH has changed the divine mind, or the political and religious pronouncements of certain people in power about YHWH’s intentions are deeply motivated by self-interest. Whatever kind of government we might want, we often assume to be God’s will.

Is God giving in to human weakness, teaching these people a lesson? Perhaps the fear of the monarchy is linked with the fear of idolatry, that the king will be honored in place of YHWH. Is that why we find such terrible, truthful stories about the lives of Israel’s kings? Maybe through these frighteningly honest stories we will finally realize that “There is no other God but YHWH” and that the king “puts his pants on one leg at a time, just as we do”—and gets caught with them down sometimes.

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