Posted by: jevcat | July 10, 2011

Samuel’s Stony Heart and Saul’s Dilemma

Well, these last two weeks we’ve got to the heart(less) part of the book of I Samuel in the daily lectionary, the part that tears at me.  There are few biblical character I dislike as intensely as Samuel – and he’s meant to be one of the good guys – but I confess I’ve always had something of a soft spot for Saul, and they share the spotlight in these chapters (9-16), albeit uneasily.

The story starts in comedy (at least I’ve always found it hilarious) and ends in tragedy.  The people of Israel decided they want a king, because everyone else has one – keeping up with the Joneses, like.  Samuel, old, raised in the temple, and like Eli, his mentor, afflicted with sons who are corrupt and decadent, believes God is the only king Israel will ever need.  While they clash, Saul is minding his own (or his father’s) business, out looking for some lost asses (that’s what the Bible calls them, and you are free to think this is where the funny part begins).  He’s not having any luck, and someone comes up with the bright idea to go ask the holy man, Samuel, who, it turns out, has been told by God that Saul is coming, and that this is the man God has chosen to deliver Israel from their enemies.  So when Saul turns up, Samuel tells him to forget the asses, they’ve already been found, invites him to dinner, and – surprise! – privately anoints him king, telling him God is with him.

Saul is so possessed by God, he prophecies – the only time he will ever do that – and Samuel tells him to wait a week, and Samuel will come make offerings.  Saul returns home to find that, indeed, the asses have been found, and he mentions he’s seen Samuel, but of his anointing, he says not a word.  Then, we’re told, Samuel gathers all the people together, lectures them that their desire for a king has caused God to reject them (cheerful sort, our Samuel; makes Cassandra look like an optimist, he does), and then casts lots to indicate the choice of king.  When the lot falls to Saul, though, he’s nowhere to be found, until finally he’s discovered hiding among the baggage, hauled out, and proclaimed king.  It seems that almost the only two people who don’t want Samuel to crown Saul king are Samuel and Saul, but their opinions are outweighed by others’ (although, as usual, it does appear God has a finger on the scales).

What happens next is, to me, perhaps the funniest thing in the Bible:  an Israelite city is in peril; Saul hears of it while plowing, cuts his oxen into pieces, and sends them round to the Israelites with the message that if anyone doesn’t come out and follow him and Samuel into battle, Saul’s going to do the same for their oxen.  Next comes my favorite line, the one that always amuses me:  “Then the dread of the Lord fell upon the people, and they came out as one man.”  God’s got a good publicist; me, I’ve always suspected the fear was less of God than of the prospect of being served oxen hash ala Saul.

Samuel’s not impressed, though, and thunders at the people that they have been wicked in asking for a king.  A week later, with battle lines drawn, Saul waits for Samuel to come make the offerings so the battle can proceed.  The troops are jittery, people are beginning to desert, everyone’s waiting, Samuel hasn’t kept the rendezvous he himself set up.  Eventually, fearing a disastrous attack on his rapidly diminishes forces  if he waits any longer, Saul makes the sacrifices himself.  Of course, as soon as he does, Samuel turns up, thundering that Saul, in making what seemed an imperative military decision – acting as God’s anointed king – has forfeited God’s favor and the kingdom.  Not only that, but God’s found someone he likes better than Saul, so there!

The rest of Saul’s reign will be like that:  Saul trying his best to be a good king, Samuel deliberately undermining him at every turn, never there except to tell him he’s done the wrong thing.  Again.  God could force Samuel to anoint Saul, but not, it seems, to do anything to help him.  It’s unrelenting – no wonder Saul had fits of madness.  There’s no compassion in Samuel for Saul, even when he begs forgiveness, or for anyone else, including Agag, the Amalekite king that Saul spares and Samuel hacks to death “before the Lord” when poor Agag cheerfully thought he was safe (for those who think the Koran is more bloodthirsty than the Bible, I suggest they read the Old Testament).  It will be downhill from here for Saul, ending in ignominious death and the kingdom going to David and his heirs.

The book of I Samuel tells us “Samuel grieved over Saul,” but I don’t buy it.  To me, it’s more like “Samuel was aggrieved over Saul.”  Saul’s status as king offended Samuel’s sense of religious propriety, so he would say all the right things and behind Saul’s back do all he could against him:  it was a set-up job, and Saul never knew.  It hurts me, if that doesn’t sound silly.

So, yes, I have a soft spot for Saul.  And I wonder why God would have let this story come down to us in this form.  I don’t know.  But sometimes I wonder if it was to let us know that sometimes religious authorities are acting out of their own agenda, not God’s; that religious dogmatism and rigidity are as much to be feared as ordinary sins; and that we should never be so sure we know what God wants that we fail to listen for God’s voice.


  1. […] in Acts 12 here, and if Saul’s story from last week starts in comedy and ends in tragedy, this story starts with potential tragedy and […]

  2. Favorite comedic verse : II Timothy 4:14 “Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; may the Lord reward him for his works.” Hahahahahaha

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