It was a transitional era. After Moses and Joshua, the judges God raised up had done their jobs, more or less, but toward the end things got way out of hand. You and anyone who ever went to VBS knows the story of Samson, at least the PG-rated version. Given his history you might be surprised to learn that he was one of the Judges of the tribe of Israel. He was a wild one, but at least he was a “strongman” and he did deliver Israel from the Philistines—at considerable cost to himself.
Samson was followed by Eli, the high priest of Shiloh. Eli seemed to be a pretty good Judge, but not such a good father. He had two sons, Hophni and Phinehas. (For the sake of the story I was hoping that their names were Joel and Ethan, since Eli, being a priest was known as a “cohen” and so his sons, also priests, would be the cohen brothers. No offense to Joel and Ethan, I love their movies.)
Anyway, Hophni and Phinehas regularly demonstrated their unworthiness to inherit dad’s role as the high priest and Judge. Appropriating to themselves the best cuts of meat from the sacrifices and similarly “appropriating” the women who served at the temple gate are not recommended ways to curry favor with Yahweh. Long story short, the cohen brothers accompanied the Ark of the Covenant into battle against the Philistines and lost it, along with their own lives and the lives of 30,000 others. When Eli heard the news he fell over backwards in his chair and died from a broken neck. Shortly afterward Phinehas’ widow gave birth to a son and named him Ichabod in honor of the lost Ark. Ichabod means “the glory of the Lord has departed,” which is why it rarely makes lists of popular baby names.
Obviously things were not going well in Israel. The priesthood was corrupt. People were chasing after false gods and the Ark of the Covenant was in the hands of their enemy. Israel thought the Ark itself was the source of their strength—as opposed to, say, the One who parted the waters, delivered them from Egypt, provided for them in the wilderness, and brought them to the Promised Land. But as humans tend to do, they conflated the sign of the Covenant with the One who made the covenant in the first place. The Ark was not God. Even as the place where Yahweh chose to meet with Israel it was mostly a tangible, powerful reminder of His presence among them.
By this time Eli’s protege, Samuel, had developed quite a reputation as a prophet, which isn’t that hard to do when you’re getting your information straight from Yahweh himself. So the job of high priest and Judge fell to him. Now Israel had God and they had Samuel, a prophet who had the ear of God, which is what the name Samuel literally means. Under his leadership and God’s well-targeted thunder, they even managed to defeat the Philistines. For the time being. As the story goes, “The hand of the Lord was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel.” But they still didn’t get the Ark back. That comes later.
Samuel did a decent job and he seems to have been a better judge than Eli. But perhaps he, too, was a little lacking in the fatherhood department. He also had a couple of sons—one of whom was actually named Joel—but these cohen brothers were pretty much as despicable as Eli’s sons. In his old age Samuel, in a serious “senior moment” appointed his sons as judges over Israel.
The elders, remembering the previous sons of a Judge, had a different idea. Hoping to make Israel great again, they went to Samuel and reminded him how old he was and how bad his sons were. They told Samuel their big idea: they wanted a king—a strongman—so they could be like all the other nations around them. The word “elder” seems to overestimate their maturity. Their sentiment was more like that of an adolescent who asks mom and dad for a particular brand of jeans so they can be like all the cool kids.
In defense of the elders, pretty much all of the Judges clearly had “issues,” and in human terms, a king would have seemed a better solution. Feeling the pain of rejection like Hillary in 2008, Samuel pushed back. After all, God was King, Samuel was Judge and all should have been right with the universe. But God told him to get over it—It wasn’t him; it was Him—so give the people what they want. Not because what they wanted was right, but because God often gives us our way to set up a teachable moment so we can learn that his way was the right one all along. If only we weren’t such slow learners.
So Samuel said, “It’s all good, man,” and told them all to go home. There is no mention of a nominating convention nor a search committee to vet candidates for vice-king.
Better Call Saul.
The KJV describes Saul as “a choice young man, and goodly: and there was not among the children of Israel a goodlier person than he: from his shoulders and upward he was higher than any of the people.” Goodly? I think that means good-looking. The second part is awkward, because if I break it down it suggests to me that the tallest person in Israel could stand shoulder to shoulder with Saul. But from his shoulders he was higher—so he must have had a big head. I’m no Hebrew scholar but the text also does not appear to describe the size of his hands.
Tall, big-headed, and handsome, Saul was the scion of a rich guy named Kish who is described as “a mighty man of power.” I don’t know if he made his money in real estate but he was at least rich enough to have servants and donkeys, which is how Saul came to meet Samuel in the first place. Apparently a few of Kish’s donkeys had wandered off and he sent Saul and a few servants to track them down. Some helpful folks along the way advised them to go see Samuel, the prophet, or as prophets were called at the time, the seer.
God told Samuel in advance that the king of Israel would be dropping by the next day and guess who shows up. You can imagine the scene. Saul walks up to the seer and asks if he has seen his donkeys. Samuel responds by telling him not to worry about the donkeys, they’ve been found, but… “Oh, by the way, you are about to become the king of Israel.” It probably sounded to Saul a lot like Karl Rove telling George W. Bush he was going to be president while the rest of the kingdom was still off in Florida looking for missing ballots and dangling chads. Both Saul and “W” were probably “astonied”—one of my favorite King James words—but at least their dads were proud.
And so Saul became the first king of Israel. He was chosen by lot the next day. How’s that for coincidence? Saul was something of a strongman, having “slain his thousands” as a hit song of the day proclaimed. He was also not the worst king of Israel in spite of going off his rocker out of jealousy over David who had “slain his tens of thousands.” Same song. And people think rap encourages violence.
Still, Saul was no Indiana Jones since he didn’t bring the Ark back even after the Philistines tried to send it back like a hot potato. It seems the enemy had grown tired of it causing problems for their people, like boils and sores and they were particularly irritated by the way “the Ark” kept knocking over the statue of one of their gods, Dagon, night after night. Even if, as some suggest, that story is a “my God can kick your god’s butt” scribal addition, it always makes me laugh. Suffice to say the Ark did not fully make it back to Israel until David’s reign and the process was not pretty, especially for a guy named Uzzah (Pictured above—on the ground.)
Generally speaking Saul did what kings do, just as Samuel had unconvincingly tried to explain to the elders.
“Here are the policies of the king who will rule over you:
He will conscript your sons and put them in his chariot forces and in his cavalry; they will run in front of his chariot.
He will appoint for himself leaders of thousands and leaders of fifties, as well as those who plow his ground, reap his harvest, and make his weapons of war and his chariot equipment.
He will take your daughters to be ointment makers, cooks, and bakers.
He will take your best fields and vineyards and give them to his own servants.
He will demand a tenth of your seed and of the produce of your vineyards and give it to his administrators and his servants.
He will take your male and female servants, as well as your best cattle and your donkeys, and assign them for his own use.
He will demand a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will be his servants.
In that day you will cry out because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord won’t answer you in that day.”
Looks to me like there was a whole lotta takin’ going on. Taking sons. Taking daughters. Taking servants. Taking fields and vineyards and cattle. That’s what kings do. They eat. They drink. They take things. And they break things—starting with campaign promises, of course.
As we celebrate the 4th of July with fireworks, the ritual baby-kissing and handshaking of politicians between bites of roasted ears of corn and barbecued ribs, and the annual festive conflation of the Constitution with the New Covenant in too many churches, we should reverently remember those who sacrificed their lives for our American freedom.
But please keep this in mind as well:
Whether your preferred strongman comes as a hyperbolic rich guy with a self-caricaturing coif, or as a strident woman in a pantsuit who probably overuses ALL CAPS in her email, you might want to pray God isn’t just using your choice as a teachable moment for the nation. Or maybe you do want to pray that way. Like Israel, we still have a lot to learn.