Lesson 22: “The Lord Looketh on the Heart” #BCCSundaySchool2018

1 Samuel 9–11; 13; 15–17

“But the People, exorbitant and excessive in all their motions, are prone ofttimes not to a religious only, but to a civil kind of Idolatry, in idolizing their Kings; though never more mistaken in the object of their worship.”—John Milton, “Eikonoklastes”

 

Our reading this week begins with the comforting announcement that the man chosen to be Israel’s king is tall and good looking:

There was a man of Benjamin, whose name was Kish . . . . He had a son whose name was Saul, an excellent young man; no one among the Israelites was handsomer than he; he was a head taller than any of the people. (1 Samuel 9: 1-2, JPS Tanakh)

It may seem strange that the first things we hear about Saul describe his outward appearance, but the text knows what it is doing. Saul’s main qualification for being king is that he looks like a king. As it turns out, though, this is the only qualification that matters. The Israelites want someone who looks kingly.

Samuel tells them in gory detail all of the bad things that a king will do: he will draft your sons to fight wars, he will take your daughters as servants, he will take possession of your fields and give them to his friends, and he will tax you heavily to support a lavish lifestyle and a perpetual state of war. Why not just stick with God as your king. And the people respond, “We must have a king over us, that we may be like all the other nations: Let our king rule over us and go out at our head and fight our battles.” (1 Samuel 8:10-20, JPS Tanakh)

The rest of the chapters assigned for today largely describe Saul failing as a king: he usurps the authority of the priests in offering sacrifices, he disobeys God’s command to utterly destroy the Amalekies and saves some cattle for himself. And he does pretty much all of the oppressive things that Samuel has already told the people that a king will do. He is a rotten human being. But he looks like a king, and he is tall, so the people let it ride.

The point of the text is not that Saul disobeys God; it is that the people, in demanding a king, reject God and turn a national leader into an idol. He doesn’t really act like a bad king. He just acts like a king, and that is bad. God makes this very clear to Samuel when the people first demand the he provide them a king:

And the LORD replied to Samuel, “Heed the demand of the people in everything they say to you. For it is not you that they have rejected; it is Me they have rejected as their king. Like everything else they have done ever since I brought them out of Egypt to this day—forsaking Me and worshiping other gods—so they are doing to you. (1 Samuel 8: 7-8, JPS Tanakh)

God’s direct equation between wanting a king and worshiping idols could not be more important. These are two sides of the same human weakness. The Israelites wanted idols because they didn’t trust God to be their god from far away. They wanted gods that they could see, touch, point to, and show other people. They wanted gods that looked like gods—like everybody else had. And these are the exact same reasons that they wanted a king. This is why it is so important that Saul be tall and good looking. If he doesn’t look like a king, then there is no point in making him one.

The story of Saul makes it much easier to understand the real temptation of idolatry. Worshiping clay statues just doesn’t hold the same attraction for modern humans as it once did. However, placing obedience to political figures (and political ideologies) over obedience to God has never really gone out of style. If anything, we are more likely to do it today than the Israelites were 3,000 years ago. For one thing, living in an electronic age means that we always know how tall our leaders are.

Most religious people today are spectacularly bad at drawing distinctions between their religious and their political identities. Cognitively, our political and religious beliefs come from the same place, and they feel exactly the same to us. In seventeenth-century England, this led to a widespread belief that kings ruled by divine right. In 21st century Mormon America, it leads to things like this or this or even this. Graven images in the age of mechanical reproduction.

As we now begin to study the tragic history of the Israelite monarchy—first united and then divided into the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel—we need to keep in mind that the entire political structure was built on an idolatrous rejection of God. All of Israel’s kings will ultimately disappoint us—Saul, David, Solomon, all of those “J” ones that nobody can pronounce. Ultimately, the Israelites are lead by their kings to reject God and worship idols. But before this happens, they reject God and worship kings.

But the point of reading the Old Testament devotionally is never to say, “Oh those silly Israelites; look at the things they did;  I am so glad that I’m not like that.” Meaningful engagement with the scriptures means realizing that we are like that. That we have the same basic human tendencies that they did to want powerful leaders to go before us and fight our battles—and to confuse the battles that we want them to fight with the will of the God that we have already rejected when we set our hearts on something too much like a king.

 

 

Comments

  1. Excellent. However, I am uncomfortably reminded of when David O. McKay was church president and people liked to say that his flowing white hair made him look like a prophet.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    A great foundation for our coming study of the monarchy. Thanks.

  3. Kristine says:

    Teachings for Our Times…

  4. I know it’s a regular theme here at BCC to have someone post about how their testimony is struggling because church leadership isn’t responding to in the manner that they would like to. Is that because the Lord still has the policy of telling leadership to listen to the people, and most people don’t want the church to change the way that BCC members do; or is it something else?
    I think this is a great post in seeing how to apply Old Testament scriptures to ourselves.

  5. Is it really that THE PEOPLE wanted someone who looked like a king. Is it not, the people wanted a king and Saul made the mistake of picking someone who looks like a king? Is this not a tale of a prophet learning how to receive revelation?

    I sat through an EQ class recently where a quorum member expressed the belief that prophets and apostles never made mistakes when calling people. (Ironically this was the Sunday before the MTC scandal broke.) The way I read the Book of Samuel, the text wants to clearly establish Samuel both as a prophet and as a human who makes mistakes.

    This is the discussion I hope happens in my ward this Sunday. (I am teaching if anyone wants to join.)

  6. Ryan Mullen says:

    “Is this not a tale of a prophet learning how to receive revelation?”

    I don’t see Samuel as the star of 1-2 Samuel. David is the character that shines brightest. Without Saul, depicted as he is, we wouldn’t know just how awesome David really is. Samuel picks Saul for the wrong reasons to highlight how Samuel/God pick David for the right reasons.

  7. Ryan, can supporting characters not grow and develop? Could it not be that the author of the book of Samuel wanted to show Samuel’s evolution for itself, not just to highlight the star of the show?

    I find Samuel a very nuanced character. He was clearly the prophet, but he made mistakes. He suggested the people accept his sons as leaders even though they were not worthy (which was very similar to Eli’s crime). He picked Saul as King based on physical appearance, a mistake he nearly repeated with David. He tried to treat Saul as a puppet. Samuel deserves some of the blame for the problems that came from Saul’s anointment as king.

    Personally I think we devalue the author of Samuel I and II if we think he only intended us to see Samuel’s behavior in relation to David.

  8. World's least prepared teacher says:

    where is frickin’ lesson 21? I gotta lesson to teach here.

  9. Ryan Mullen says:

    MTodd,

    “can supporting characters not grow and develop?” Absolutely. I didn’t mean to convey that they couldn’t. I was just pushing back on the idea that 1-2 Samuel was *primarily* a tale of Samuel learning to receive revelation.

    “Could it not be the author of the book of Samuel wanted to show Samuel’s evolution for itself, not just to highlight the star of the show?” It’s my understanding that writing was so rare and expensive in ancient Israel that texts like 1-2 Samuel were community projects. The “author” of 1-2 Samuel was likely a scribal school (e.g. the Deuteronomist school). The school would have much less autonomy than, say, a modern 21st-century author. If written during David’s lifetime, the school would answer to the high priest and, to some degree, the king–which would make it less likely that we’d get the unflattering portraits we have. If written during the exile, the school would be wrestling with how the moral failing’s of Israel’s leaders (political and religious) led to it’s conquest, but the passage of time would also lead to unequal treatment. David’s legacy was much more enduring than Saul’s or Samuel’s, so it’s less likely that their portrayal is independent of their relationship to David. Similar to how James Buchanan’s presidency is more likely to be discussed today in contrast to Lincoln’s rather than on its own terms.

  10. Joseph Stanford says:

    I am teaching this as a substitute GD next week. It’s clear that the writer(s) are contrasting Saul and David in some of the ways mentioned. My question is, what to do with the commandment that Samuel gives Saul to destroy everything and everyone of the Amalekites, men, women, children, and all the animals?? And the reason given is that the Amalekites refused to take in the Israelites many generations earlier??!? This happens to be the commandment Saul broke…. I am not sure I can let this one lie at face value.

  11. Is there any indication about how long Saul was king? When I read the story of him looking for his fathers livestock, and getting called by the prophet; I’m envisioning a Young Single Adult. But the the time it’s chapter 14 he has a son who’s defeating enemy soldiers in battle.