YEAR B: SEASON OF PENTECOST
(Sunday between June 12 and June 18, if after Trinity Sunday)
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
As noted last week 1 Samuel begins with the story of Samuel, the last of the judges. Internal corruption and the external threat from the Philistines demand a new political structure if Israel is to survive. In 1 Samuel 8-12 a debate is waged in the text, reflecting that in Israel, over whether Israel should have a king. According to the text the argument for a king wins the day and Saul is designated king with divine blessing (1 Sam 11:14-15). But Saul proves not to be the type of king described by Yahweh in 1 Samuel 8. His kingship is a much more limited institution. In the story that follows most of Saulís reign is taken up with fighting the Philistines (1 Samuel 13-14).
Todayís reading begins just after Saul has displeased the Lord. In 1 Samuel 15 he is sent to attack the Amalekites, a people traditionally descended from Esau (Gen 36:12) who had opposed Israel when they came out of Egypt (Exod 17:7-13; Deut 25:17-19). In the process Saul did not destroy all the Amalekites or animals as the Lord commanded (15:7-9). In spite of Saulís repentance the Lord rejects Saul as king (16:1) and so the story of Davidís rise to power starts (1 Samuel 16-2 Samuel 5).
The story of his rise tells of his youth, his task as a shepherd for his father, his musical ability, his rise in the court of Saul and subsequent falling out with Saul, his days as a mercenary, and finally his accession as king at the death of Saul. Today we read of Davidís election. 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 is essentially about the transfer of the Lordís spirit from Saul to David. This movement of the spirit represents the election and approval of the Lord.
This passage should be read as a story, not an historical account. We have to feel our way with the characters to get the point of the story. Of course, we have an advantage over the characters. We are told things they do not know in the story line, and we have also (more than likely) heard the story before. We know David is the one who will be chosen even before his name is mentioned.
A number of difficulties and challenges face the characters. Samuel grieves over Saul (15:34) even as he is sent by the Lord to anoint Saulís replacement. This is a dangerous task for Samuel. Saul could retaliate (16:2). Even though we have been told that the Lord has decided to replace Saul, that does not guarantee a smooth transition. It is not a publicly palatable decision and there is the potential for strong resistance. So Samuel is reduced to a ruse, which is actually instigated by the Lord (vv. 2-3), to deceive Saul. In order that Saul will not guess at what is happening Samuel is to say he is going to Jesseís house to make a sacrifice. There is some irony here. In 1 Sam 15:15 Saul had told Samuel that he had not killed all the Amalekitesí animals because he wished to sacrifice them to the Lord. Saulís lie becomes Samuelís ruse. That raises an interesting question preachers might explore: how does one distinguish between the lie of a thief and the ruse of the Lordís servant when in the midst of lifeís turmoil and there is no narrator to tell us who is in the right? Being involved in the Lordís business can mean being caught in a volatile world, full of deceptions.
We should also note that the Lordís intention regarding David is not clear to Samuel at the start of the passage. Samuel is sent to anoint a king from Jesseís sons. He does not know which one and he only learns that it is David in 16:12. Neither does Jesse know which son is intended and so he parades them all before Samuel in order of age. As each comes forth the Lord tells Samuel not to look on appearance or stature (v. 7). As Samuel does not yet know the Lordís choice, he judges by the usual criteria for kingship Ė stature and appearance. This was expected in the ancient world (cf. 1 Sam 9:2 regarding Saul). Today we might employ different criteria Ė performance in the media, identification with the Ďordinary folkí etc. Ė but the principle is not dissimilar. The point of this story, however, is that the Lord sees where Samuelís eyes canít go and judges by what Samuel canít discern Ė the heart of the person (16:7). Samuel would judge Jesseís sons by what was exceptional, what met certain standards, what impressed, what was beautiful, what was secure, appropriate and fitting. But the Lordís choice and the economy of the Lordís rule are not subject to such criteria. In fact, what the Lord sees can even offend such standards and break open what is misleading in such criteria.
The Gospel reading (Mk 4:26-34) speaks of the kingdom of God in similar ways. The criteria and standards of this kingdom are not necessarily those of the world around us where size, power, influence, and position determine outcomes. In the kingdom of God, the least can be the source of greatness, what is unseen the source of a great harvest. The youngest, who keeps the sheep and is easily forgotten, can be the next king. This is the economy of Godís kingdom, the nature of Godís working that culminates in the incarnation of Jesus as the babe of Bethlehem.
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