We have been studying 1st Samuel at Bibles and Beer for the past month or so and I was delighted to see a reading from that Old Testament book come up on the lectionary, in fact the same chapter we studied last Monday evening. First Samuel can be found in the history section of the library we call the Bible. Together with first and second Chronicles it traces the religious, political, and social development of Israel from a loose collection of tribes to a monarchy.
First Samuel actually begins with the last verse of the book of Judges, which reads, “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.”
By then Israel has progressed from a one-man show when Moses led the people. When he found it was all too much for him, he appointed others to help him and soon Judges sprang up, people who felt called by God to be military, political, social, and religious leaders among the people. The judges were people like Gideon, Sampson, Deborah, Eli, and Samuel.
Samuel’s mother was barren until God answered her prayers for a son. She then promised Samuel to God. Chapter 1 She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a Nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”
Samuel grew up watching Eli. Chapter 2 says, And the boy Samuel grew up in the presence of the Lord. 22Now Eli was very old. He heard all that his sons were doing to all Israel, and how they lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting.
Samuel had watched the old priest Eli try to control his wretched offspring, Hophni and Phineas. Eli was a man of God. He deserved better from his sons…but God blamed Eli for their failure and cast judgment saying no one in his family shall ever live to old age. 33The only one of you whom I shall not cut off from my altar shall be spared to weep out his eyes and grieve his heart; all the members of your household shall die by the sword. 34The fate of your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, shall be the sign to you—both of them shall die on the same day.
And they did. Well . . . that was then. Fast forward a few decades and now Samuel is a father who cannot control his sons. The Bible says they took bribes and perverted justice.
By now the people had had enough of these old men and their thug sons. So they go to Samuel and tell him…hey, now don’t take this personally, but you’re getting a little long in the tooth and if you should pass in the night we don’t want to be stuck with these sons of yours…so give us a king. Everyone around us has one, why not us?
Well, Samuel does take it personally. So Samuel calls on God. The two of them sit down for a talk. God is, as usual, quite empathetic. Look Sam, he says, they haven’t rejected you…they have rejected me.
But then…God’s been rejected before. God can take it. God’s become quite accustomed to rejection. God says, let me tell you a story about Adam and Eve. Made them in my image, you know…set them up with everything they’d ever need. And God tells him the story about the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the serpent and that apple he found lying on the ground with only two bites taken from it.
God puts his arm around Samuel’s shoulder and says, see my old friend, I couldn’t control my children either. God knows I tried and tried again. And God began to reminisce like old men do.
He told Samuel about how he booted Adam and Eve from the garden. Tough love, he called it and how sad he was as he watched them go out into the world. Heck, he said, they couldn’t control their kids either. One of them killed his own brother. Things didn’t get any better. I was so angry with the folks at Sodom and Gomorrah that I decided I had to destroy the whole city…Abraham, bless him, tried to talk me out of it and we agreed I’d back off if we could find just 10 good people in the entire city…we couldn’t…not even ten.
Finally, I said let’s erase all of this from the face of the earth and start over. So I sent a flood and destroyed everyone and everything. Felt terrible afterward and made a promise I regretted form time to time…said I’d never do that again. And I haven’t…though from time to time I have zapped one or two who really got under my skin…like Eli and his sons. I thought that would send the message but look at those boys of yours. But…they are no different than the others.
God smiled and said, you know my prophet to the Muslims, Mohammed, was once asked about his children and the problems they create. He said…my children are my greatest joy…and my greatest heartache. Ah…no truer words…
Oh my…God said…humans are determined. Over the centuries, these people have continued to wander off the beaten path…one time they found themselves slaves in Egypt, of all places. What a mess that was. I finally found someone willing to lead them out of there…after plagues and locusts and all sorts of nasty stuff…finally got them on their way to the Promised Land but it took them forty years to get there and I have never heard such complaining. The whole trip…when they weren’t whining they were worshipping a golden calf.
But they finally made it…finally got to the land I’d promised…and foolish me…like that day in the garden when I asked only one thing of Adam and Eve, I asked only one thing of these people. Drive out of the land all of those folks who worship other gods. I told them that if they didn’t, there’d be trouble ahead.
Well, long story short…once again they didn’t do the one thing I asked…and here we are again. Last time it was the Egyptians…now it’s the Philistines…always fighting among themselves or with someone else. Blaming me when they lose…taking credit when they win. Telling folks that I’m the one who told them to go to war…God knows how this will all end.
So…now they want a king…as though that’ll make any difference. Well, God said, as he stroked his long white beard…give ‘em what they want. They want a king? Let them have it.
But don’t let it be said we didn’t warn them. You tell them that I said that if they get a king…he will make their life miserable…he will draft their sons into his army and send them off to who knows where to fight his wars. A king will make servants of their daughters and farm hands of their sons and he will tax them to death, using the money to buy weapons of war and to build his own palaces.
If then…if they still want to replace me with a king God says in verse 18, you tell them for me, In that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day."
And so Samuel started to walk away to fulfill the assignment God had given him. But God stopped him and smiled and said…just between you and me and the fence post…on that day, when they cry out because of their king…you know…I won’t abandon them. I’ll be there again as I have always been there when my people cry out.
And as God turned to walk away, Samuel could hear God speaking to himself, saying…I suppose the day will come when I finally learn that all this zapping people and threatening them doesn’t work. I suppose one day I will learn that they will do what humans do because that’s how I made them…with all that free will stuff they throw in my face…and I will just need to forgive them and love them for who they are.