This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news:
Egypt on the brink
1 Samuel 12:1-25
Complete Jewish Bible (CJB)
12 Sh’mu’el said to all Isra’el, “Here, I have done everything you asked me to do — I have made a king over you. 2 There is the king, walking ahead of you; but I am old and gray-headed. There are my sons with you, and I have walked at your head from when I was a boy until today. 3 So here I am; now is the time to witness against me before Adonai and before his anointed king. Does any of you think I have taken your ox or donkey, defrauded or oppressed you, or accepted a bribe to deprive you of justice? Tell me, and I will restore it to you.” 4 They answered, “You haven’t defrauded or oppressed us, and you have accepted nothing from anyone.” 5 He said, “Adonai is witness against you, and his anointed king is witness against you today, that you have found nothing in my hands?” They replied, “He is witness.”
6 Sh’mu’el said to the people, “It was Adonai who appointed Moshe and Aharon and who brought your ancestors up from the land of Egypt. 7 Now, hold still; because I am going to enter into judgment with you before Adonai regarding all the righteous acts of Adonai that he did for you and your ancestors.
8 “After Ya‘akov had entered Egypt, your ancestors cried to Adonai; and Adonai sent Moshe and Aharon, who brought your ancestors out of Egypt and had them live here in this place. 9 But they forgot Adonai their God; so he handed them over to Sisra, commander of the army of Hatzor, and to the P’lishtim, and to the king of Mo’av; and they fought against them. 10 But they cried to Adonai and said, ‘We sinned by abandoning Adonai and serving the ba‘alim and ‘ashtarot. But now, if you rescue us from the power of our enemies, we will serve you.’ 11 So Adonai sent Yeruba‘al, B’dan, Yiftach and Sh’mu’el and rescued you from the power of our enemies on every side, and you lived securely. 12 When you saw that Nachash the king of the people of ‘Amon was attacking you, you said to me, “No, we want a king to rule over us” — when Adonai your God was your king. 13 Now, here’s the king you have chosen, the one you asked for. See, Adonai has put a king over you. 14 If you will fear Adonai, serve him, obey what he says and not rebel against Adonai’s orders — if both you and the king ruling you remain followers of Adonai your God — [then things will go well for you.] 15 But if you refuse to obey what Adonai says and rebel against Adonai’s orders, then Adonai will oppress both you and your leaders.
16 “Now therefore, hold still; and see the great deed which Adonai will perform before your very eyes. 17 Now is wheat harvest time, isn’t it? I am going to call on Adonai to send thunder and rain. Then you will understand and see how wicked from Adonai’s viewpoint is the thing you have done in asking for a king.” 18 Sh’mu’el called to Adonai, and Adonai sent thunder and rain that day. Then all the people became very much afraid of Adonai and Sh’mu’el. 19 All the people said to Sh’mu’el, “Pray to Adonai your God for your servants, so that we won’t die; because to all our other sins now we’ve added this evil as well, asking for a king over us.” 20 Sh’mu’el answered the people, “Don’t be afraid. You have indeed done all this evil; yet now, just don’t turn away from following Adonai; but serve Adonai with all your heart. 21 Don’t turn to the side; because then you would go after useless things that can neither help nor rescue, they are so futile. 22 For the sake of his great reputation, Adonai will not abandon his people; because it has pleased Adonai to make you a people for himself. 23 As for me, far be it from me to sin against Adonai by ceasing to pray for you! Rather, I will continue instructing you in the good and right way. 24 Only fear Adonai, and serve him faithfully with all your heart; for think what great things he has done for you! 25 However, if you insist on doing wicked things, you will be swept away — both you and your king!
This passage contains a clear version of the theology promulgated in one strand of the Samuel story: it is against monarchy and for the existence of Israel as a holy people under the rule of God’s Law, as equals (apart from slaves!). It derives from reflection on the calamitous history of Israel’s monarchy which ended in national humiliation and the exile of a section of the population in Babylon. The other strand in the story is more sympathetic to Saul and to Samuel as his mentor. The finished product is a slightly ambiguous but not unsubtle mix of these strands.
Here the reader is asked to see the potential evil of the institution of monarchy:
1. It introduces a privileged group,the royal court, which interrupts the responsibility of equal members of Israel for each other and for the people as a whole.
2. It introduces a ruling group, the royal family, which interrupts the direct responsibility of every Israelite to the Lord. The King, for example, may decide to worship “things that can neither help nor rescue.”
In this passage, Samuel proposes the (Sharia?) ideal that both king and people should serve Adonai’s Law, but the reader gets the feeling his heart is not in it. The conclusion of this judgment on the monarchy is that Israel’s desire to be “like other nations”, that is to become like the successful nation states of the ancient world, ruled by quasi-divine kings in partnership with priests, was itself a refusal of its true identity as “Adonai’s people.” The theology behind this judgment owes a great deal to prophets like Amos, Micah Isaiah and Jeremiah, who denounced the widening gap between rulers and ruled, rich and poor, worshipers of Adonai and worshippers of idols.
All this is doubtless unfair to the first King of Israel whose true character is hard to discern through the theological perspectives of the narrator, but the story, as we have it, is a permanent critique not only of monarchy but of all ruling classes, Only God’s justice is good for his people.
But how can “God’s justice” be discerned and administered? The Old Testament has three answers: one is the exodus people taught by Moses how to become a free people under God’s Law; the second is the settled tribes living in their own territories, sometimes called to wage holy war as Israel by their charismatic “judges”; and third is the people returned from exile, reconstituted as God’s people, rededicated to the holy Law through Ezra and others.
It’s a kind of theology which disappeared in the internationalism of the early Christian Church and was hopelessly lost in the emergence of Christianity as the religion of Roman and subsequently other rulers. But it resurfaced in the Reformation Churches. Samuel’s speech above could have been made by John Calvin to the Civil Magistrate in Geneva. In this way an ancient theology became a source of radical politics all over Europe and even more so, all over North America. Often this theology allowed civil rule and even monarchy, provided the civil ruler was subject to the rule of God.
This has been called the doctrine of the two kingdoms, and is illustrated in the story of how Andrew Melville a minister of the Church of Scotland rebuked King James Sixth, “plucking his sleave and saying, “”Sir, as divers tymes befor, sa now again, I maun tell ye, ye are God’s sillie (blessed) vassal; thair are twa kings and twa kingdomes in Scotland: thair is King James, the heid of the commonweal; and thair is Chryst Jesus, and his kingdome the Kirk, whase subject James the Saxt is, and of whase kingdom nocht a king, nor a lord, nor a heid, but a member.” (Sire, as many times before so now again I have to tell you, you are God’s blessed vassal; there are two kings and two kingdoms in Scotland: there is King James the head of the Commonwealth; and there is Christ Jesus and his kingdom the Kirk, whose subject King James the Sixth is, and of whose kingdom not a king, nor a lord, nor a head, but a member.”)
Even if, like me, you sometimes think you might have preferred King James to Andrew Melville, or King Saul to Samuel, you can see that fundamental issues, such as are being forcefully argued in Egypt today, about governance, equality and the place of religion in society, are raised by this ancient text.