Having started our series with David’s description of God as a good shepherd, today the lectionary takes us backwards in the story of Israel: to Saul, and a harder story of life with God. As 1 Samuel 15 begins, Saul is the king God chose for the Israelites; as it ends, God is “sorry that he made Saul king over Israel” — and ready to anoint a new king, David.
What goes wrong for Saul? Having been commanded to “punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came out of Egypt” (v. 2), Saul virtually wipes them out — but spares their king, Agag, and saves any property of value, presumably for himself. It’s not the first time Saul has failed to follow God’s law; now, God “regret[s] that I made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me, and has not carried out my commands” (v. 11). He sends Samuel to rebuke Saul, who feebly insists that he meant to sacrifice the sheep and cattle he had kept for himself. Samuel’s response begins our passage for today:
“Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
as in obedience to the voice of the Lord?
Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is no less a sin than divination,
and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
he has also rejected you from being king.” (1 Sam 15:22-23)
“The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this very day,” Samuel concludes, “and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you.”
This series started with me recognizing that I do need to do better at setting aside time “to dwell and be in relationship with” God. But that’s easy when the Bible presents God as a figure of comfort and care. What is his word for me in this much harder passage?
Like yesterday’s psalm, 1 Samuel 15 is difficult because the context is so unfamiliar to most of us: this time, the complicated politics of the ancient Near East. Renovaré commentator Timothy Simpson suggests reading it as a story of failed political leadership, which resonates even for a citizen of a 21st century democracy, or as warning against false repentance, which is certainly a good word for the penitential season of Lent.
But he warns that the lessons are far more complicated. In the introduction to 1 Samuel, Simpson notes that
David will later be guilty of the same offense and yet will get off scot-free… In the end, readers are left with a bewildering sense that there is no discerning the reasons for what Yahweh is doing. God bestows his blessing on whomever he chooses, and we are not privy to his counsels. Living with this puzzling paradox is an important growth point in the spiritual formation of the People of God.
Indeed. The amateur theologian in me wanted to wrestle this passage revealing a God who both “regrets” his decision to make Saul king and “is not a mortal, that he should change his mind” (v. 29). But as I read and prayed this morning, I found myself thinking about something more straightforward:
God doesn’t speak directly to Saul.
While his successor will write an entire psalm describing the sound of God’s voice, in these passages Saul hears God’s word as the sound of a human voice: Samuel’s.
I’m tempted to think of dwelling with God, of being in relationship with God, in terms of private moments: just my Bible, my coffee, and me, as I seek to hear God’s word for me in the stillness of the morning, before anyone else is even awake to interrupt me. But in today’s story, Saul’s relationship with God is mediated entirely through another person, who shows up unexpectedly to puncture Saul’s delusions about himself and his world.
Am I as willing to spend that kind of time with God? Am I attentive to the voices of prophets who will disrupt my self-satisfied routines and bring a sometimes paradoxical God crashing into my life?
If not, I’d better get ready: next week’s lectionary features Isaiah and Ezekiel.