“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? / The world would split open.”
Poet Muriel Rukeyser

Saturday, June 09, 2012

First Samuel, the last Judge

A reflection on I Samuel 8:4-11, 16-20, 11:14-15

The season after Pentecost, which lasts until the season of Advent – or the end of November, offers us expanded sets of readings – every Sunday we will have two options for the Old Testament reading.  For the time being we have chosen to follow Track One, which follows an entire book of the OT. Last summer we heard readings from the Book of Genesis and talked about the creation of the people of God through the great stories of our ancient mothers and fathers of faith.

Genesis is the first book of the Pentateuch – five books also known as the Torah – the primary readings of the Hebrew people and modern day Jews. The Pentateuch lays out the law of God, how the people are to live according to what God desires. It begins with Abraham and then continues with Moses freeing the people from slavery in Egypt, forty years of wandering in the desert in the book of Exodus, two books of laws known as Numbers and Leviticus, and then in Deuteronomy, just as Moses dies, they finally see the promised land. Joshua is the next book, and it is a book of conquest led by the warrior Joshua – it is a battle for the people to claim this promised land. After Joshua come the Judges – Judges tells the long history, about 410 years of leadership of the Hebrew people conducted not by kings, but by tribal judges.  This story was compiled and culminated in book form between the 9th and 8th centuries, BCE, and includes the books of the Bible now known as : Judges, First and Second Samuel and First and Second Kings.  The story takes place in the Palestinian and Transjordan region.  The primary effort during this time was the consolidation of settlements and tribes. Life centered around tribal relationships not cities.  The tribal leaders did not conform to any particular standard – they range from Jepithah, a military commander to Deborah, a prophet, along with Samuel and other judges.

The Israelite people of this early time had an aversion to kings and the idea of a single leader. Nonetheless there is a push toward claiming a king, one chosen by God. However this process was slow because the region had no means of unifying the diverse tribes into one cohesive unit for defense and leadership. After several centuries of leadership by judges they were finally able to unify the tribes and claim a king – the kings are familiar to us : Saul, David (author of the Psalms) and Solomon.

The story in the book of Samuel tells the story of the transition from the leadership of a judge to the leadership of a king.

Samuel was a great judge, prophet and charismatic leader, often considered a hero. Samuel was born to a woman named Hannah, raised in the temple under the great priest Eli (remember the reading where the young Samuel hears someone calling his name, thinks its Eli but it’s actually God?). As a judge Samuel had to render legal decisions – in the sense of what is the law of God and how are the people living according to God’s law?

Our reading this morning begins in chapter 8. We have skipped over the story of Hannah and her desire for a baby – of her promise to give a baby back to God and thus the birth of Samuel and his life spent in the temple under the training of the priest Eli.

We have also skipped over the story of Eli and his sons who are seen by the people as being deceitful and which eventually leads to the leadership of Samuel.  The lectionary has also skipped over the theft of the ark – the despair over losing the symbol of God’s presence and how this affects the people, and the subsequent return of the ark.  The ark was a box that was also the symbol of God’s  presence.

Now in chapter 8 we hear the people asking Samuel for a king. Through Samuel God warns them against it, making the tyrannical nature of worldly power excruciatingly clear. But the people want a king, and a king is what they get. The importance of this turning point cannot be overstated. Samuel becomes the last of the judges, of the tribal leadership, and the era of kings is ushered in. The story of Saul, David, and Solomon begins. Unfortunately the story ends with another exile and the collapse of the nation.

The story of judges and kings reminds us today that we are to think about how we are governed: are we governed by external forces that distract us from God, and from what God desires of us?

In other words do we lead our lives motivated first by what it means to love God, self, and others, and thus treating all with dignity and respect? The question has to do with ethical living, but just beneath the surface is another question: where do we place our trust? Do we place our trust in God and in living a life that embraces God’s command that we love? The stories we hear in the Old Testament are ripe with examples of what happens when people fall away from God and pursue life ruled by other principles.

References: The Interpreter's One Volume Commentary on the Bible and The Faith and Process Blog.