Give us a King: A Reflection on 1 Samuel 8.4-20

I remember when I was about eight years old desperately wanting a skateboard, and not just any skateboard, but a banana board, a style that was all the rage among second grade taste-makers in Whitehorse at the time. I wasn’t particularly agile or stable on my feet, and I got around just fine on my bike, so it’s no surprise my parents looked at me somewhat quizzically when I made this desire known. So why did I want this rather ugly thing? Well, really, it’s a tale as old as time. I wanted one because everyone else was getting one. And being marked out as different can be a very lonely and even dangerous thing, especially for a kid who already felt like an outsider in so many ways.

This memory came to mind this week as I was reading today’s appointed lesson from 1 Samuel. It records one of the most important scenes in Israel’s history: when the leaders of the tribes come to the judge Samuel and ask him to anoint someone to be their king. Up until this point, Israel has been a loose confederation of tribes united by faith, language, and heritage, and, in times of great national need, by “judges,” individual men and women chosen by God to lead. It was what we might call a “charismatic theocracy;” God was their king, who would from time to time send the Holy Spirit upon certain individuals to empower them to lead in times of crisis. While this seemed to work well enough, it marked Israel out as being “weird” by international standards. Monarchy was where it was at. To be a real country on the Ancient Near Eastern stage was to employ this state-of-the-art social technology we call kingship. And Israel wanted in.

While the story is set up as the people rejecting the ideals of the charismatic theocracy over and against both Samuel and God, a closer reading shows that Samuel has rejected those ideals too, whether he knows it or not. In his old age, Samuel has appointed his two sons to govern as judges in his place, despite the fact that they are clearly not up to the task, and that there is no indication elsewhere that being judge over Israel was a hereditary office. The stories from this era of Israel’s history show instead that the office of judge was diffuse and ad hoc; sometimes the leaders were the obvious suspects, sometimes the last person one would think; sometimes from the north, sometimes from the south; sometimes none at all. The system relied on the normal tribal leadership to take care of the day-to-day concerns, and faith that God would raise up a unifying leader when the need arose. Samuel’s expectation that his sons would take up his mantle is not how the system worked. So it would seem that everyone in the story is under the sway of the pressure to conform: Samuel wants the (relative) stability of a hereditary monarchy. The people want its efficiency and prestige. Both groups show a lack of trust — of faith — in God’s provision.

This is why God tells Samuel, “They have not rejected you, but they have rejected me.” This is why Verna Dozier referred to this event as the second Fall, the second time when God’s people rejected God’s dream for the world and humanity: “First we human beings succumb to the temptation to be God, to know absolutely what is good and what is evil. Then we decide that the kingdoms of the world have more to offer than the kingdom of God” (The Dream of God, 60).

Samuel goes to great lengths to ensure the people are entering into this new way of being in the world with open eyes. He lists all of monarchy’s drawbacks (in what is a historically fascinating look at what Ancient Near Eastern people saw as the problems with their own political systems):

He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And 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 Sam 8.11-18)

In short, they can expect military and civil conscription, expropriation of people, land, and resources to support the wealth of the capital at the expense of the countryside; taxation and servility are what monarchy looks like.

But the people are adamant. They want a king, and a king they will have.

As it happens, the Israelite monarchy was a disaster. Saul, the first king, is unpredictable and moody, eventually descending into a murderous paranoia. His successor David, while held up as a model of kingship, has a fraught reign marked by personal failures (a lovely euphemism for what we could also call conspiracy, rape, and murder), civil war, and loss of control over succession planning. Solomon’s reign is the most objectively successful, but his success in centralizing power and wealth in Jerusalem set the conditions for the North’s rebellion and establishment of a rival kingdom of their own. Thereafter the new kingdom of Israel (Samaria) in the north and the weaker rump state of Judah in the south would be led by a motley crew of kings good and bad, all caught within the machinations of their local rivals and the Ancient Near East’s great empires. In their desire to be just like everyone else, ultimately, the people of God and their promised land were wiped off the map.

What a fitting image for us of both the temptations and dangers of conformity, of giving up something precious about ourselves in order to fit in. I began this post with a very low-stakes example from my childhood, but the temptations we face as individuals and as communities every day can have very high stakes. And if we aren’t careful, we can easily lose our identities and what makes us special; we can lose sight of our vocations as creatures made in the image and likeness of God.

To avoid this fate, we need a lot of trust, in God certainly, but also in our God-given identities and capabilities. We also need the courage of our convictions: When faced with the temptation to conform, we have to ask ourselves who we are, what we value, and where we want to go. By clarifying this, we will find ourselves on firmer ground.

And so as we head into this coming week, let’s recommit ourselves to this work of discernment and to be and become who we are meant to be, to want more than simply to blend in to the crowd.

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