Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The third Sunday of Pentecost, 13th of June, 2021
1 Samuel 15:34 – 16:13
Welcome to episode two of the soap opera that is the life of King David. And welcome to a very mixed up and confused Biblical story! Last week I talked about the contradictions in God’s calling of Saul to be king; that kingship seemed to be both a bad thing, a rejection of God as leader of the people of God (1 Samuel 8:7) and a gift from God to save God’s people from the hand of the Philistines. (1 Samuel 9:16) Now, with the arrival on the scene of David, the story becomes even more complicated because there are at least two, possibly three, contradictory stories of how David becomes a candidate for Israel’s kingship.
As I hope you remember from last week’s Reflection, after Saul becomes Israel’s first king he twice disobeys the Lord. First he offers sacrifice to God in the place of the prophet 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. The lectionary jumps straight from Saul being King to David’s anointing, so we miss a folktale in which Saul makes the sort of rash oath that always gets people in trouble. 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 badly, hence the need for this second anointing. Yet Samuel’s loyalty and faith in the Lord is apparently such that he is willing to anoint a second king despite the fact that doing this while the current king is still around could be extremely dangerous. After all, while the Lord may have decided to replace Saul, Saul may not want to be replaced, and as king Saul has a whole army at his command. So, 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’.
Today’s story ends with David’s anointing, and the spirit of the Lord coming mightily upon him. Next week, the lectionary offers us two readings, which we are not going to hear because we are instead going to celebrate the anniversary of the Uniting Church. One is the famous story of David killing Goliath, (1 Samuel 17:32-49) although interestingly the lectionary somewhat squeamishly finishes the reading before David cuts off Goliath’s head. (1 Samuel 17:51) The second story the lectionary offers us begins after David has defeated Goliath, when Saul’s son Jonathan falls in love with David: ‘the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul’. (1 Samuel 18:1)
The lectionary is doing some tidying up, because in-between Samuel’s secret anointing of David and David’s arrival on the battlefield with his big brothers’ lunch (1 Samuel 17:17), there is a contradictory story of how David and Saul meet. In that story David does not appear on a battlefield and ask permission to fight Goliath. Instead he is brought to Saul as someone skilled in playing the lyre who can soothe Saul’s anger and depression. We are told that ‘Saul loved [David] greatly, and he became his armour-bearer. Saul sent to Jesse, saying, “Let David remain in my service, for he has found favour in my sight.” And whenever the evil spirit from God came upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand, and Saul would be relieved and feel better, and the evil spirit would depart from him’. (1 Samuel 16:14-23) This completely contradicts the David and Goliath story in which Saul asks the commander of the army whose son David is and, when the commander does not know, Saul tells him to, ‘Inquire whose son the stripling is.’ (1 Samuel 17:55-58) I prefer the version of the story that we do not hear read in church, in which David is a musician who ministers to Saul’s mental illness, not a shepherd who kills Goliath in the same way that he has killed lions and bears.
Talking about these contradictions that remain within the biblical text, although it would have been easy for editors to ‘correct’ them, and about the character of ‘God’ as someone who might have learned from past mistakes, reminds us that in these tales of Samuel and Saul and David we are primarily hearing stories. Commentator Walter Brueggemann 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. 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?
Historians agree that behind the biblical stories of David is the history of a real person, and they vehemently disagree about what this person was like. Many argue that the biblical story is propaganda, presenting David as a pious and upright hero while ignoring that he climbed to the throne over a lot of convenient deaths, including those of Saul and Jonathan. The very fact that the Bible describes David as constantly at war raises questions about how successful his campaigns were. Successful wars usually end.
Seeking for the historical figure behind the biblical king is undoubtedly enjoyable, but we are reading the Bible as Scripture, not history. Rather than looking for a historical King David, we can ponder why the authors and editors of the books of Samuel present the biblical David in the way they do. The David we hear about today is a long way from the king who will later commit adultery and murder. His youth and size provide us with an appropriate moral: God judges by criteria that Samuel cannot discern. Samuel looks at what is outwardly impressive, beautiful, and appropriate. God looks at the heart of a person, their integral and essential identity. This means that God tends 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 is 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 is, as I said at the beginning, an absolute soap opera. It is a story of love and war, of sin and forgiveness, and through it all we will continue to feel our way to the meanings in the story, and to what the tales tell us about God. Reading the Scriptures is always a matter of discernment. And at the heart of that discernment, Saint Augustine tells us, is love. Augustine wrote that, ‘anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up the double love of God and neighbour, has not yet succeeded in understanding them’. The Scriptures are complicated and contradictory; let us ensure that our reading of them always builds up love. Amen.