Our last moment together with our hero left him standing alone at the gates of Ramah in deep thought, meditation, and no doubt, considerable perplexity. He had just anointed with oil a very tall and handsome young man at the very instruction of Yahweh Himself.
That would seem to be enough to put a man of God of Samuel’s stature in total quietness of spirit. But knowing God’s heart, and God’s great patience with mankind, and with Israel in particular, Samuel wanted to be the shepherd to his people that God Almighty had called him to be, and ensure the young man’s integrity and fitness for the office that he had anointed him to. Hearing God, and heartily and happily obeying Him, does not mean that the pastoral or prophetic heart isn’t still burdened for the people of God and the direction they choose.
So with the mental image of the aged Samuel standing, staring at Saul ben Kish as he walks away to join his servant ( who, as an aside, Jewish traditions identify as Doeg the Edomite. A man with no small part to play in the Kingdom’s transitional times about which we are thinking), we want to bring to the reader the deep ponderables of the great Prophet at this historic moment. So we quickly sweep Samuel ben Elkanah to the figurative analyst’s couch and ask him in a stern inquisitive doctor’s tone, “When did your problem first start?”
As he stands there musing with his left arm akimbo and his right hand scratching the beard on his chin, Samuel’s mind must have been buried in the history and environment that had brought the nation of Israel to this pivotal hinge of a moment in time, upon which the door into a new era, a new hitherto inconceivable season, under God, had been birthed by his own prophetic words to Saul.
The biblical account tells us very clearly that while Joshua was aging, the incipient lack of purpose, drive and pastoral leaders to succeed him, reached a climax of chaos shortly after his death. This was a history that Samuel was immersed in and more familiar with than most of the Israelis of his generation. Indeed, it was arguably the saddest part of Israel’s history hitherto into which he had been born.
Relations between the tribes was loose, occasionally even frayed. Only the tribe of Judah, Simeon, and those in the hill country of Ephraim could have had long term inter action with each other of a positive nature. In fact, so positive was the interaction between Simeon and Judah that the former was assimilated into the latter and is never mentioned again in the historical narratives of scripture.
The Philistines, referred to by many academics as the “Sea-peoples,” and the Arameans in particular were still present in Canaan, and this made for tension between the Israelis and Arabs, tension that, though subdued at some points, at other times exploded into crude and deadly warfare.
The nice, tidy and orderly setting that the scriptures give us of the nation of Israel, the twelve tribes, and within the tribes the clans, and within the clans the family’s, is absolutely correct in its intrinsic nature of the people of Israel with true Semitic, Abrahamic, and Israelite descent. However, those statements actually, are only half the story. Those statements actually cover up the chaos that ensued in the fight for survival, the claiming of land, the search for prime farming territory, and the complications of the presence of non Israeli peoples that should not have been allowed to exist if Israel had obeyed Yahweh’s injunction when Israel took over the land of Canaan. Their slowness and failure to obey that command caused God to send an angel, who addressed the people at Bochim (See the early chapters of Judges). To put it in twenty first century street language, the angel told them plainly, “Forget it! If you are not prepared for the battle to wipe them out, I cancel the order. Let these people live! But they shall be a thorn in your flesh all your days.” Bad news, eh?
When read with a view to understanding the political make-up of these times we have the books of Joshua, Judges and First Samuel to illumine us. The Old Testament clearly indicates the growing difficulties involved in the resolution of these scenarios we have highlighted above.
We are given the names of various men that God raised up, sometimes simply acknowledged by people as a leader, sometimes God Himself having to call the person directly to deliver a tribe, or geographical area at least, from the oppression of some invading national or tribal entity. With the majority of them, once safety had been restored, and a measure of Covenant consciousness placed in the psyche of the new generation of Israel, the hero, or “Judge,” would return to wife (or wives), family and farm and normal service of pastoral living would have been resumed. That was true of most, but not quite all.
The word normally translated as, “Judge,” can lead to misunderstanding. Because of the context of the word in the twenty first century, it tends to suggest, to the cursory observer, that supreme legal and even political authority was invested in the Judges. Not so! There are actually other English words used that could be accurately utilised such as “Saviour”, or “Deliverer”. The variations in the nouns used throughout the book of Judges, and the different spheres of functionality as explained in the histories that are recounted, indicates that the tribes allowed their leading figures to be assessed and utilised in as many different ways as there were crises and deliverers to extricate them from. In plainer language; “They made it up as they went along.” Some of the Judges had a degree of local authority, but that was given by Yahweh and the masses, not by written constitutions and regular political processes as we know them in the twenty-first century in the western world.
We note all this to once again highlight the fact that apart from Samuel, none of the Judges were national leaders. They were merely tribal, charismatic emergents that occasionally had other tribes assist them in their fight to exist. Deborah had six tribes, at least, join in her struggle, probably assisted by her geographical middle Ephraim situation.
So this was the state of play until Samuel emerged within the context of the book of Judges, even though in the text of scripture he actually is post the Book of Judges. He was a Judge, and even moved in a circuit to oversee Israel as depicted in our earlier chapters. But, Samuel was utterly different to all previous Judges. What Samuel brought was a new dimension of character, spirituality, vision and a deeper and more intelligent understanding of the Mosaic covenant. As already depicted, under Samuel’s leadership, Israel had returned to covenant loyalties, and with the return of their former faith came a resurgence of national spirit and vision. They went out against the philistines, and on the very same field where they had suffered such a crushing defeat years earlier, in the same day that “Ichabod” was born, they routed their Philistine aggressors to such a degree that for many years the Philistines had left the central highlands of the promised land alone. So, even though we never read of Samuel leading the troops on the battlefield, he certainly inspired them to victory.
The Kotel (Western Wall) circa 1860
So let us here envisage plainly, that the destructive status quo of three to four hundred years of the Judges was a “higgledy-piggledy” rise and fall of leaders, from one crisis to another, in various localities. The revolution that broke this generational curse was provoked firstly by the dissatisfaction in the minds of the populations of the tribes as to their vulnerability. This consciousness of weakness developed into the consciousness of strength when united in the wonderful leadership of the prophet Samuel. This, in turn, brought a deep fear of returning to those days, birthed by the ramifications of Samuel commissioning his own two sons to act in his place when old age had set in. The entire nation had high expectations, expecting those sons to replicate Samuel’s integrity and character. Neither of them showed their father’s impartiality and they were both quickly known known for their venality. The people had no desire to be judged by them now that Samuel could no longer discharge his judicial functions as “he always had.” The old idea and political desire to have a hereditary leader, which had found brief expression in Gideon’s day, resurfaced with greater aggression and tenacity. The people perceived that as Samuel was growing old, and having for years assumed an authority of institutional gravity, a dynastic concept of the aged prophet being passed on, leaving these moral non-entities of his sons in the same function and position as their father, was nationally decided to be unacceptable. So they pleaded with the prophet for a leader with monarchical authority.
Samuel’s disappointment was ironically a fruit of his own awesome success and righteousness. They had such a lofty model to measure others with that it would have been difficult for anybody to follow in Samuel’s sandals. His disappointment was brought about by the people assessing Samuel’s strength and authority correctly, but by totally misreading the roots and the reasons for those very characteristics. They could not see that it was an internal spiritual impartation – no! – better, an actual implantation of Yahweh in Samuel’s heart, not just a narcissistic desire and ability to “rule,” which is what it seemed to be with Samuel’s sons. The thrust of their appeal was: “If we cannot have your sons to carry on your work with the same internal splendour and authority, Samuel, then give us a constitutional leader with similar external splendour and authority as “all the other nations” have.” The elders of the people, literally, had no idea of the spirit that ruled behind their request.
Picking another man was not like buying apples at the market . That is why the Judges, up to Samuel, of necessity, had to emerge in wisdom and the anointing of God’s Spirit upon them. But, although this is, “in yer’ face obvious,” when reading the book of Judges and First Samuel, for some reason it was not grasped by Israel, not even their “wise men.”
Jews in Jerusalem circa 1890
Samuel had expostulated with them, telling them that their cry showed a lack of faith and a complete misunderstanding of the Covenant God had with them. Yahweh was their true king.
The cry for a monarchy was not the result of careful planning, “Think Tanks,” or political negotiations. In a sense it was a knee-jerk reaction by the elders to have something settled about the leadership before death took their beloved and revered Samuel home to his eternal reward. Such was their absolute trust in the character and integrity of Samuel, they left the entire issue of selection of a successor to him and his “God uncovered ear.” Is that not amazing?
They felt the need to be able to make speedy political decisions, as well as hasty militaristic action. This was something that had not been in previous generations, apart from small localities being steeled into action. It does suggest that, whether of faith, or superstition, the elders would not consider a man who was not legitimised by Samuel, and thus Yahweh. Samuel was more than a king to the people of Israel. He was revered and perceived in such a Godly and lofty perspective, he was quite naturally, and without query, asked to find a man and make him king of Israel. “No pressure, Samuel! Just make sure it’s the right man that we want!”
Also, by attempting to enter the minds of the elders we conclude that there must have been some other long term desires in their thinking. Follow my pathway of logic: No1. I suggest that the elders, if not the whole entity of Israel, perceived the Philistines as an ever growing and permanently present source of danger. Previous enemies had invaded and left. This was historically different; the Philistines still lived there on land that Yahweh had given to them (Their memory of what the angel had declared at Bochim was conveniently never referred to). No2. The hitherto spiritual weakness of Israel meant that they were usually forced into years of horrible bondage where prosperity and wealth, apart from sons and daughter were lost to the greed of their enemies, before a leader, or judge had arisen to deliver them. That cycle sometimes took forty years of virtual slavery before they prayed into being a new Judge to save them. No3. During those holocaust days of subjection, Israel had been pounded into a fear for existence. No4. When a judge arose it took considerable time to mobilise the people for the particular front of battle. It would take even longer to choose the officers of rank in their forces. No5. This was now considered to be inefficient and insufficient for the “modern warfare” of the ever present Philistine war machine on the coastal plain, potential Ammonite aggressors from the West and belligerent Amalekites from the South East. So, No6 and the Conclusion, logically, the appointing of a permanently commissioned leader, a “life-time Judgeship” if you will, would, in theory at least, provide a tighter organisation, a more easily mobilised military base, a better trained body of troops, and greater fighting efficiency.
That all seemed logical and politically prudent, apart from one major issue.
All this philosophising and politicising missed the fact that God had declared Himself to be their King, their Ruler and their Defender. It was the negligence of the covenant keeping, the godlessness of the people, and the lack of understanding, that caused Israel to miss the whole point, i.e. that living in the realm of the “unseen Yahweh” was the very answer to all the needs of the people of Israel whether or not it was financial, militaristic, prosperity and/or peaceful living. If they had clung to Him with the same tenacity that later generations of Israel clung to idolatry, there would have been no “days of the Judges,” no days where, “every man did that which was right in his own eyes,” and therefore no need of a successor to Samuel. In fact all would have been living in the same realm as Samuel lived.
If one had the unbelief to omit God and the covenant from the daily life and existence of Israel, what was being discussed was wise and prudent. But the very omission of this truth made it foolish, dangerous , and frankly, a wilful sin from which, once having committed themselves to its pathway of conduct, there would be no way of escape.
In practise this pathway of thinking (i.e. “We want a permanent dynastic leader!”) ultimately captured the groundswell of opinion in the whispering of Israel until it emerged as a cry from the dissatisfied Israelis that included the word “King.” “Yes! That’s what we are looking for, give us a King!” This was the moment of conception, the malingering festering foetus of fallacial thought. Fallacial, I say, even though that thought brought single bonding and unity to the twelve tribes, even though it forged a single unified nation called Israel that lasted no more than 120 years. It was only forged through David’s character, held together though the Solomonic early years, yet lost again through Solomon’s foolish later years.
So with all this noted, we need to understand that the Israelite monarchy developed as an incredibly complex social phenomenon. It is not enough to perceive it as the evolutionary development of the political order of the nation of Israel. To do that is a definitive path to failing to understand its conflicts, tensions and ultimate destiny. Yahweh was the King of Israel – they needed no earthly monarch at all.
What is vital is to view the Israelite monarchy, as predominantly a religious institution. We are not yet discussing the Davidic throne, for at this moment of time in Samuel’s chronology, David was not even born. We are talking of a, “King of Israel,” as an humanly birthed concept that has to be initiated into being somehow by Samuel.
As a religious office, it was far more profoundly involved with Israel’s spiritual and innermost experience than any political machinery could ever be.
And all that is to say this: Samuel anointed Saul at the direct instruction of Yahweh, but it seems to me to be clear, that had if it been left to Samuel’s own mind, he would not have proceeded. Samuel was aware to a degree more than anybody else in the Israeli cosmos, that Yahweh had condescended to give the people what they wanted, i.e. a King that was after their own heart, and not after His own heart. They were looking on the outside. They wanted strength, good looks, power, muscle, intelligence, respectability. Even with the knowledge that Yahweh was God Almighty, the Supreme Ruler of the Universe whose authority in world affairs was too awesome to be stated. Nevertheless, Samuel feared for what God had decided to do, in acquiescing to the people of Israel.
Samuel’s eyes were on the covenant, righteousness, holiness and obedience to the commands of the Lord. Would this man Saul, from the smallest family in the smallest tribe, whom Samuel had just drenched with his now empty oil-horn, be the key to taking Israel higher? Would he have character, spirituality, integrity and faith that could bind the nation together in the manner that Samuel understood and had pursued for decades.
This had always been Samuel’s daily meat and drink. But it had been his meat and drink as well as his responsibility to implement the divine revelation. He had been the proverbial, “head cook and bottle washer,” for his entire adult life. And now, with all his understanding and wisdom gleaned from years of abiding in faith, God uncovering his ear and whispering into it, and then Samuel declaring what he had heard, and having done such a job so faithfully, he finds himself on a cliff edge. Dare we say, “It is Samuel suffering from nervous fatigue.”
In obedience to that same divine voice, Samuel has just promised to give it all away to a young fellow that he hardly knew. Everything he held with reverence, faith and spiritual warfare, and all that he had taught and lived for as an example before the people, he had virtually, at God’s instruction, said to this young man, “Alright! I shall give it up now and leave it all in your hands.” This was a young man that could not even find three lost donkeys, and was more the follower of his servant, than the leader. This was a man that had no clue of even who Samuel was, so he did not have even the history and reputation of Samuel in his family to live with and use as a benchmark. A total stranger had just been promised the most influential position in Israel – so incredibly influential, because the people themselves invented the post, created the job description and then had said to Samuel, “You do the recruitment!”
So this is where we continue with the story. To say Samuel was full of thought at this point would be an understatement. To say that what he had just done was irrevocable, and a turning of Israel’s national destiny was also undeniable as well as irrevocable. What on earth was going to happen now? No wonder the aged prophet was in such deep thought!
I am sure Samuel would have given a lot for a simple nine to five office job sometimes, that is, if offices, and clocks had been invented. (Only joking!) But seriously, we have paused here to simply observe that the weight of responsibility on the elderly prophet must have been remarkably intense. Having handed the future of Israel over to a complete unknown, the weight on Samuel seemed even heavier than before.