Sermon: The importance of good biblical interpretation

Sermon for Williamstown
The third Sunday of Pentecost, 17th of June, 2018

1 Samuel 15:34 – 16:13

Last week, if you’ll remember, the Hebrew Scriptures told us about the desire of the people of Israel for a king to lead them. They wanted this king ‘that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles’ (1 Samuel 8:19-20). The prophet Samuel thought this was a bad idea, that YHWH should be Israel’s king, speaking through his prophets. Samuel consulted the Lord who told him to do as the people wanted – after first warning them of what a king would do to them.

The first king of Israel is Saul, one of the tribe of Benjamin. At first it seems that everything will go well but then Saul twice disobeys the Lord. First he offers the sacrifice in the place of Samuel. Then he doesn’t kill all the livestock of the Amalekites as the Lord ordered him to do. And so Samuel tells Saul that the Lord is going to replace him; that Saul’s family will not inherit the kingdom. This is despite Saul having a son, Jonathan, who is a great warrior and dearly loved by the people. In another story that the lectionary ignores Saul makes the sort of rash oath that always gets people in trouble in folktales. One day, while fighting the Philistines, Saul vows, ‘Cursed be anyone who eats food before it is evening and I have been avenged on my enemies.’ His son Jonathan doesn’t hear this and when he finds a honeycomb Jonathan eats the wild honey. In response to the breaking of Saul’s vow God withdraws, so Saul has lots drawn to find out who has sinned and caused God’s retreat. The lot falls on Jonathan, who confesses. Jonathan is willing to die and Saul to kill him, but ‘the people said to Saul, “Shall Jonathan die, who has accomplished this great victory in Israel? Perish the thought! As the Lord lives, not one hair of his head shall fall to the ground; for he has worked with God today.” So the people ransomed Jonathan, and he did not die. Then Saul withdrew from pursuing the Philistines; and the Philistines went to their own place.’ (1 Samuel 14:45-46.) It is this much-loved, great warrior, Jonathan, who is Saul’s heir. But he is apparently not God’s choice for the next king.

As today’s reading starts we’re told that the Lord is sorry that he made Saul king over Israel. The Lord tells Samuel that he is going to provide a replacement. And then we’re told of the secret anointing of Israel’s second king, David, the youngest of Jesse’s sons, ruddy and handsome with beautiful eyes, but apparently not as tall and strong as his big brothers.

One question today’s story raises is why the prophet Samuel is still obeying the Lord. This is the second time that the Lord has told him to anoint a king. The first time went very badly, hence the need for this second anointing. Yet Samuel’s loyalty and faith in the Lord is such that he is willing to anoint a second king. This is despite the fact that anointing the next king while the current king is still around is an extremely dangerous thing to do. After all, while the Lord may have decided to replace Saul there’s nothing to say that Saul is willing to be replaced, and as king Saul has a whole army at his command. This is why the Lord suggests to Samuel that he lie, and say that he’s going to Bethlehem for a sacrifice. There’s some irony here. Saul had told Samuel that he had not killed all the Amalekites’ animals because he wished to sacrifice them to the Lord; and now Saul’s lie becomes Samuel’s ‘obfuscation’.

When Samuel gets to Bethlehem and sees Jesse’s sons, he judges by the usual criteria for kingship: stature and appearance. When Saul was anointed he was described as, ‘a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else’ (1 Samuel 9:2). This description of Saul marks him out as an appropriate choice for a warrior king. So we shouldn’t be surprised that the prophet Samuel also thinks that the appearance and height of Jesse’s sons are the criteria that should determine their suitability for kingship. Samuel is only applying the same criteria that the Lord seems to have applied when choosing Saul. But maybe we see here a God who has learned from his earlier mistakes? Because the Lord tells Samuel, ‘the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart’.

David is anointed

Talking about God as someone who might have learned from past mistakes reminds us that, as I said last week, in these tales of Samuel and Saul and David we are hearing stories, not history or theology. Commentator Walter Brueggmann warned us not to read last week’s story of the people asking Samuel for a king with ‘the conventional pious reading of the church’ that smooths away all problems and potential contradictions. Recognising that today’s story is a story means we can ponder whether the character of the Lord might have learned from mistakes made with Saul, or simply changed his mind about what a king of Israel required, and we can wonder about the state of David’s heart, given what we know of his later career. Is the David who sent Uriah the Hittite to be killed so that he could marry Uriah’s wife Bathsheba really the right person to be made king? Apparently so.

The David we see here, the young shepherd boy, is a long way from the king who will commit adultery and murder. His youth and size enables us to discover an appropriate moral in today’s story. God judges by criteria that Samuel can’t discern. Samuel looks at what is impressive, beautiful and appropriate. But that’s not how God works. God looks at the heart of a person, their integral and essential identity. This means that God has a tendency to completely overthrow the standards of the world. As today’s gospel reading reminds us, God often works in ways that we do not know, using the smallest of seeds to bring forth the harvest of the kingdom. God’s ways are different from human ways, and it’s our responsibility is to seek to discern God’s ways.

Over the next couple of months we’ll spend more time hearing the story of King David, and it’s a soap opera. It’s a story of love and war, of sin and forgiveness, and through it all we’ll continue to feel our way to meaning behind the story, and to what the tales tell us about God. Finding the moral in Bible stories isn’t simple; it’s a matter of discernment. Ignoring that, thinking that we can read the Bible simply and literally, is dangerous. We’ve seen that this week in the USA, where the Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, used Paul’s injunction in Romans 13, ‘let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God’ (Romans 13:1) to justify separating parents who have crossed into the USA over the Mexican border from their children. I don’t know whether the Attorney-General doesn’t know that that chapter was used by the self-titled ‘German Christians’ to justify their support of Hitler, or just doesn’t care, but to anyone who knows their history his use of Romans 13 in this way is chilling. Bad Biblical interpretation has been used by Christians to justify the most appalling crimes against humanity: slavery; the Holocaust; apartheid. We must read the Bible carefully, in context, and through the lens of Jesus’ commands that we love God and neighbour because the alternative is terrifying.

This week I have been reading the reports and proposals that are being brought to the national Assembly and one proposal starts its rationale by saying that, ‘[the] Bible, the words of God, is “the absolute truth and authority” that is not to be added to, nor subtracted from, nor altered in any way and by way of scholastic studies such as theology, law, constitution and regulations of the Church, customs, cultures, or whatsoever, but to be upheld and followed’ (Proposal 53). The history of biblical interpretation and stories like today’s show us why the Bible can’t simply be described as ‘the words of God’ and why upholding and following it is no simple matter. It will be interesting to see how the Assembly responds to that proposal. In four weeks I’ll be able to let you know whether the Uniting Church is still a church that demands that biblical interpretation be life-giving. Let’s pray that it is. Amen.

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