Monday, July 17, 2006

Tragedy in 1 Samuel 8

1 Samuel 8 is a pretty depressing read after the comforting hope-full-ness of the preceding chapter.

Eli and his sinful sons were bumped off in 1 Samuel 4, never again to sabotage the security of Israel in the face of a wrathful God with their disobedient shenanigans. But their previous laxness meant that idolatry was rife in Israel and God had departed from the Israelites (symbolised, perhaps, by the ark of the LORD being easily captured by the Philistines)(1 Samuel 4). But there was hope that the tide would turn, as the Philistines were afflicted with disease and death and as the ark was promptly returned to the Israelites (1 Samuel 5-6). The Israelites repented and put away their idols and returned to God and God saved them from the Philistines (1 Samuel 7). There was peace and Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life.

What a marvellous ending, the lovely picture of God's people living under God's rule in God's place, you can almost hear the sheep munching calmly on sweet grass and birds singing in overladden fruit trees...except, this was not the end. Samuel grew old and he appointed his two sons in his place (1 Samuel 8:1). Worse, they "did not walk in his ways but turned aside after gain. They took bribes and perverted justice" (1 Samuel 8:3). And we do an alarming doubletake: this reeks of Hophni and Phinehas and we all know what happened to Israel then...

Then the elders of Israel gather before Samuel and demand a king like all the other nations to replace his incompetent sons (1 Samuel 8:4-5). Samuel prays to God and God tells Samuel to warn them about the consequences of having such a king over them (1 Samuel 8:6-18). Is there a problem? Yessiree.

It seems that in this case, the problem is not so much that the Israelites are exhibiting a teenage desperation not to stick out in a crowd, succumbing to the peer pressure of surrounding nations, wanting to conform, insisting on changing their tacky China-brand clothes for the cool sophisticated rags of their schoolmates. Nor that they are running with the wrong crowd who will teach them to drink, smoke, gamble and dance to hiphop music. Nor that that they haven't got a backbone and aren't their own person. Nor that they've failed to be daddy's child, the distinctive salt and light of God in the world, "being in the world but not of the world".

What is appalling is whom they are spitting in the face of and turning away from. It is not Samuel, who has been a faithful judge over them all these years that they are rejecting; it is God:
they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. According to all the deeds that they have done, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you.(1 Samuel 8:7-8)
The dreadful horror of this outright rejection of God is emphasised by what the people want this king of theirs to do: to judge them and go out before them and fight their battles (1 Samuel 8:20). This is language previously used to describe what God did for the Israelites: he sent his angel before them to guard them on the way out from Egypt and bring them to the Promised Land that he had prepared for them; to bring them to the Amorites and the Hittites and the Perizzites and the Canaanites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, and subdue the land and blot their enemies out before them (Exodus 23:20-30; 32:34; 33:2; 34:11, 24; Leviticus 18:24; 20:23; Numbers 32:29; Deuteronomy 1:30, 33; 4:38; 6:19; 7:1, 22; 8:20 etc).

Going before them, the LORD fought their battles for them. They didn't need to do anything, only to be silent (Exodus 14:14; Deuteronomy 1:30; 20:4).

What the Israelites are asking for, really, is to replace their current king - a great and powerful God, with one who is a mere man, whom, it is obvious, even if he isn't corrupt, cannot have the same power and control over resources, the hearts of men, nature and destiny as the creator God had and used to the favour of Israel (and quite recently too infact, delivering them from and giving them victory over the Philistines at Mizpah (1 Samuel 7)). Shooting yourself in both feet, that is.

Like an audience watching Greek tragedy as the hero stands at the brink of certain disaster, we want to cover our eyes; we cannot bear to watch the carnage. We want to yell out to the Israelites in the narrative,"Don't do it! Don't be stupid! Samuel's sons might be incompetent, but that's no excuse to reject God himself as your king! Think of the consequences! Don't you learn anything from history?"

But of course we can't change anything. And we're left, at the end of 1 Samuel 8, with a terrible sense of dread in the pit of our stomachs: the Israelites are a motley crew obviously neither especially numerous nor particularly skilled in warfare against the superior enemy forces around them. They wouldn't have even made it out of slavery in Egypt much less to the Promised Land on their own. They survived only because of the God they had, who faithfully protected them all the way, who went before them and fought their battles for them and kept them safe. And now, in a show of spectacular stupidity (for innate sinfulness blinds the eyes and hardens the heart), they insist on exchanging this great, living, powerful God for a mortal muppet...

Ah, perhaps there's a glimmer of hope: remember that God's promise that after Eli's two sinful sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were killed for their disobedience, he would raise up for himself a faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in his heart and in his mind, who will intercede for the people before God forever (1 Samuel 2:35)? Perhaps this priest would do something about this folly. But there is no faithful priest in sight: Samuel showed a great deal of potential, what with his unusual birth, his dedication to the LORD, God being with him and speaking through him (1 Samuel 3:19-21) in the days when words and visions from the LORD were rare (1 Samuel 3:1) and his subsequent successful intercession for the people before God (1 Samuel 7). But Samuel got old and showed no signs of living forever and appointed his sons in his place.

What of God's promise then? But remember what God said the Eli,"'I promised that your house and the house of your father should go in and out before me forever,' but now the LORD declares: 'Far be it from me, for those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed. (1 Samuel 2:30). In a similar way, could it also be that the rebellion of the Israelites in wanting a replacement for God mean that there will now no longer be anyone to mediate for the Israelites before God, pleading with him to help them and protect them? That would surely be just and right. So there's no way out there.

Oh, but even then, perhaps, perhaps, God in his great mercy will tell them not to be silly and ensure they wake up their idea, and so they will get over this temporary insanity and all will be well. But no, God says to Samuel:"Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you" (1 Samuel 8:7), "obey their voice" (1 Samuel 8:9), "obey their voice and make them a king" (1 Samuel 8:22). "Obey my voice" is what God tells the Israelites or obey the voice of God's angel who is the representative of God (Exodus 19:5; 23:21; Deuteronomy 4:30; 8:20; 9:23; 13:4, 18; 15:5; 26:17; 27:10; 28:1-2), fear him, keep his covenant statutes and commandments and they will be his treasured possession in the whole world and he will bless them. The voice to be obeyed is God's, but now God tells Samuel to obey the voice of the Israelites. The implication is that they themselves are now their own gods. Good luck in that because that's surely bound to fail.

And we are fearful for them if when this monarchy fad fails. For Samuel says:"in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the LORD will not answer you in that day" (1 Samuel 8:18). What hope is there for the Israelites then?

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