Do-Over Anointing - A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 4B (1 Samuel)
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
34 Then Samuel went to Ramah; and Saul went up to his house in Gibeah of Saul. 35 Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel.
16 The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” 2 Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ 3 Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” 4 Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” 5 He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.
6 When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” 7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 8 Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 9 Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 10 Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” 11 Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” 12 He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” 13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.
Israel wanted a king, just like all the other nations. They got their wish in the person of Saul. Apparently, Saul looked like a king, but ultimately the job was too big for him, and he was rejected by God. When God decided to start fresh, with a new king, God sent Samuel on a trek to find the right person to fill the job. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!
Before we move on to the next king, whom Samuel will anoint, we need to address God’s rejection of Saul. There were a couple of occasions where God, speaking through Samuel, was not happy with Saul’s leadership of the people. In the verses just prior to this week’s reading, God rejects Saul, because Saul spared the king of the Amalekites (and some sheep), even though God told Saul to exterminate them all (Samuel finishes the job by hewing Agag into pieces). Because Saul didn’t do as he was told, though he told Samuel he saved the sheep for a sacrifice, he was rejected, for God desires obedience not sacrifice! (1 Samuel 15).
I must confess, first, that the story of the Amalekite genocide has always bothered me, and it should bother all Christians and Jews. This is not representative of my theology. I must also confess that I have always felt sorry for Saul. Yeah, he made mistakes, but he’s human. He was also put into tricky situations. He seems to have been a successful general, especially with the help of his son Jonathan leading the troops. I don’t think that God was fair with him, especially after God abandons him, leaving him open to his own demons (as the story reveals going forward). Perhaps Saul wasn’t up to the job, but on whose shoulders does responsibility fall? After all, Samuel anointed him—at God’s direction. In any case, God regrets the choice, and wants to start fresh.
With this expression of regret, God sends Samuel out to look for a replacement. In fact, God reprimands Samuel for grieving over Saul. The deed is done, so move on. God has moved on, so Samuel needs to get moving. Samuel is sent to Bethlehem, to the house of Jesse. There he is supposed to find the person with the right stuff, someone different from Saul. Since Samuel was afraid that Saul might find out and kill him, God suggested a ruse. Take a heifer and go to Bethlehem, pretending you’re on your way to offer sacrifice, and invite Jesse and his sons to join you. Who knew that Yahweh was so good at deception. So, with that cover, Samuel headed to Bethlehem to find Jesse.
Samuel must have had a bad reputation with the people, because when he arrived in Bethlehem the people were not happy. In fact, they were afraid of him. The word here is: “The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, ‘Do you come peaceably?’” (1 Sam. 16:4, emphasis mine). Samuel assures them that he comes peaceably, and with that approaches Jesse.
The story that follows is well known. Samuel asks Jesse to gather his sons, so he can bless them. He goes down the line, blessing each one, but none of the seven sons of Jesse gets God’s approval. Samuel was impressed with Eliab, the oldest, but Yahweh simply told Samuel not to look on the outside appearance, for “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Might Samuel wonder why God didn’t use this criterion the first time with Saul? After all, Saul looked like a king, but didn’t have a heart from God (or so it seemed). With seven sons rejected, Samuel must have been getting a bit concerned. So, he asks Jesse if he has any other sons not present. Jesse responds that there is one more, the youngest, who is out taking care of the sheep. One must assume that Jesse hadn’t thought about sending for the youngest son, when he had seven older sons who should have filled the bill. Why the youngest? Yes, we know, God often worked that way—think Jacob and Esau. God’s criteria might be different from ours.
When David arrives from the fields, smelling like sheep (I’m assuming), God reveals that this is the one. I find it interesting that while God told Samuel not to look on the outside, Samuel is impressed with his externals! We’re told that David was “ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.” He’s a good-looking kid, and he will grow up into a handsome man, whom women and men are attracted to. When God gives the okay, Samuel takes out the oil and anoints David the future king. We’re told that “the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.” As for Saul, in verse 14 of chapter 16, we’re told that the Spirit left Saul. Stephen Chapman notes that these two verses suggest that the Spirit can “rest upon one leader at a time, that God’s investment of the spirit in David cannot occur without the removal of that spirit from Saul, an action resulting in bitter consequences” [Chapman, 1 Samuel as Christian Scripture, pp. 145-146].
This is a complicated story, because it raises uncomfortable questions about God. It is no help to simply chock this up to its being part of the Old Testament. As we’re often told, the New Testament vision is different. That is a Marcionite view of God and the two testaments, for it breaks Jesus from his context. There aren’t two Gods, one in the Old Testament and another in the New. There is but one God, who is understood in diverse ways—including within the first testament. So, it raises questions that need to be addressed regarding God’s character.
It also raises questions about how we look at leadership. I think we still look on the outside. Good looks. Charisma. They’re still important. Even if David has good looks, it’s not the reason for his being chosen. There is something inside him that makes him an appropriate choice. David seems to have the inherent capacity to be king, unlike his predecessor. I appreciate this word from Carolynne Hitter Brown regarding God’s way of raising up leaders:
God raises leaders from unexpected places. What better example is there than the quiet, middle-aged seamstress named Rosa Parks? Parks’s refusal to relinquish her bus seat to a Eurocentric person was the spark that led to the Montgomery bus boycott. Later she was deemed the “mother of the civil rights movement.” Her resolve to maintain dignity and resist unjust treatment set off a chain of events that altered race relations permanently. [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, p. 283]
The fact that Rosa Parks was an activist doesn’t change the fact that her courage to take on the powers. She was raised up for this purpose, even as David unexpectedly was lifted up for this calling, and like Rosa Parks changed history.
As for Samuel, having completed his work, he heads off to Ramah, while David goes back to his chores. It’s not time for the revelation of David’s anointing. Only the family knows—if that. We will have to wait to see David take up the mantle of monarchy. He has the spirit, just not the throne. He has to be patient and wise, good qualities to have if one wishes to be a good leader. So, he bides his time, until he can take his place as the “do-over anointed” king of Israel. David makes his share of mistakes, but is remembered as one whose heart was close to God, and thus the right person for the job.