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(Sunday between June 5 and June 11, if after Trinity Sunday)
1 Samuel 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20; (11:14-15)

At the start of Pentecost in Year B we focus on the story of David, the greatest king of Israel. We encountered a couple of passages from this story earlier in the year (see Advent 4 on 2 Samuel 7, the covenant with David, and Epiphany 2 on 1 Samuel 3:1-10, the call of Samuel).

The reading this week comes from a set of chapters, 1 Samuel 8-12, which see the transition of the people of Israel from the period of the judges to the beginning of the monarchy. Samuel has been judge in Israel for some time. 1 Sam 7:15-17 summarise the end of his time. His position had been a complex one. He acted as a religious leader, intercessor, prophet and even one building altars (1 Sam 3:20; 4:1; 7:5, 17) but also as a dispenser of justice within the community (1 Sam 7:15-17). In addition, no successful military venture seems to have been undertaken without his leadership (1 Sam 7:2-4).

However, it is clear that at the end of Samuel’s life, Israel stands in a precarious position. On the one hand, Samuel’s two sons, whom he had appointed judges, were corrupt and did not share their father’s good reputation (1 Sam 8:1-3). On the other hand, the Philistines still posed a military threat to Israel and Israel’s success at withstanding that threat depended on the faithfulness of those leading the people (1 Sam 7: 5-14). In addition, the Philistines held certain technological advantages over Israel (1 Sam 13:19-22) and various syncretistic practices had crept into Israel’s worship (1 Sam 7:3-4). All this meant that Israel’s prospects after Samuel departed would not be good. It is little wonder then that the elders come to Samuel requesting that he appoint a king ‘like other nations’ over them.

The nature of this request needs some clarification. In the ancient Near East, kings held supreme power. They functioned not only as administrative and military leaders but also as religious leaders, high priests in fact. In other words, they held power over the administration of daily affairs in all its facets. And in particular, they were the sole access to the ear and word of the local deity.

The section 1 Samuel 8-12 clearly incorporates two different views on the matter of Israel becoming a monarchy. Today’s passage and others like 1 Sam 10:17-19 present the view that kingship is a request of the people and the Lord reluctantly grants it. Other passages, such as 1 Sam 9:15-21 and 12:13-15 suggest that the Lord readily supports the request. The two positions probably reflect critical debate in early Israel over the monarchy and its nature. Was kingship ‘like other nations’ consistent with the worship of Yahweh and Yahweh’s own ‘kingship’ over the people.

The first part of today’s reading expresses the basic assumption behind this first section relating to the request for a king ‘like the other nations’. It is not only a rejection of the role Samuel has fulfilled in his life. It is a wholesale rejection of Yahweh (1 Sam 8:7). It is in this context that Yahweh then reluctantly grants what the people want (vv. 7b-9). Our set reading leaves out some of the detail of what Samuel is to warn the people about. That comes in vv. 11-18. This king that the people ask for will conscript their sons for his standing army (vv. 11-12). He will conscript their daughters to work in his palaces and courts (v. 13). He will confiscate their lands for grants to his officials (v. 14). He will tax the people in terms of produce, stock and slaves (vv. 15-17).

When the people realise their error of judgment Yahweh will not be inclined to listen to their cries (v. 18). The chief context for their desire for a king like the nations was to combat the chaos within Israelite society that led to an ineffective response to the Philistine threat (v. 20). To counter that threat the king would have to establish a standing army, well trained and organised. That required resources. The people would pay heavily for their security. But the people do not heed the warning of Samuel and Yahweh, almost seemingly in spite, lets them have what they want (vv. 21-22).

One further thing to note about the passage is that the kind of king described by Samuel is not like the one they get immediately. The king Samuel anoints, King Saul (1 Sam 9:15-10:1), will be nothing like the person described in 1 Sam 8:11-17. Saul will be little more than a tribal leader and will in the end fail in the central task of protecting Israel against the Philistines (1 Samuel 31). The king described in 1 Samuel 8 will not eventuate until Solomon comes to power. The editors of 1 Samuel 8 already have the later narratives of 1 Kings 1-11 in mind.
The preacher has a good deal of grist for their mill in this passage especially reflecting on the relation of faith in God and God’s sovereignty over creation to matters of civil and political leadership. How to balance the two is a question with which many struggle. It involves not only the issue of how we might vote in an election. The preoccupation of both sides of the Australian parliament with matters of holding or undermining power raises the question for many of where one can responsibly cast one’s ballot as a person of faith. In addition, there is the matter of how we might give allegiance to God as sovereign recognising that we live in a secular society. We, therefore, need to make compromises in our daily life if we are to recognise the freedom that our neighbours have. For example, the work of the church within society through its agencies and even its congregations is becoming more and more accountable in various ways to governmental regulation. A lot of that is to the good but it does mean in some instances that allegiance to God is set in tension over against allegiance to government regulation or requirements. The church in its agencies or congregations, or even its individual members, is faced with the question of when compromise with the larger society means a loss of faith.

In another vein, there are plenty of examples around the world at this moment of governments and tyrants, some still ruling, others deposed, whose vested interest in power and its trappings, are in conflict with the welfare of the people. They are clearly contemporary examples of just the question Israel and Samuel faced.

Psalm 138

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