I Samuel 10-12, Psalm 83, John 18
What is truth?
I Samuel 10 – 12
Few figures in the Bible are more tragic than Saul. Indeed, Shakespeare turned to 1 Samuel and Saul for inspiration as he wrote his famous tragedy Macbeth. Saul was born in the 11th century B.C., probably around 1060 B.C. His father, Kish, was a wealthy farmer of the tribe of Benjamin. Like many of the leaders of the Old Testament, Saul grew up tending animals, herding donkeys and plowing with oxen.
When we meet Saul, he is already married to Ahinoam and has a son named Jonathan. Saul was probably in his 30s. He stood head and shoulders above other men and was strikingly handsome. Saul had the makings of a great leader, but was shy and did not desire to rule over others.
Israel was a loose confederation of tribes at best. They were only unified under adversity and when a charismatic figure such as Samuel emerged, who served as prophet, priest and judge. Each judge played a military role as well. The structure of the military was inadequate, and many officials, such as Samuel’s own sons, were corrupt. They people therefore begged for a king.
In 1 Samuel 1we read, “Samuel took a vial of oil and poured it on [Saul’s] head, and kissed him; he said, ‘The Lord has anointed you ruler over his people Israel.’” Each time we baptize someone, we anoint his or her forehead with oil. This action can be traced back to the anointing of Saul. The Greek word for oil is “chrism.” The one who is anointed is the “christos.” Kings were anointed with oil and set apart for leadership. Jesus was anointed as the Messiah. Each Christian is anointed at baptism. The “chrism” makes us a “little Christian” or “christos,” who follow Christ, the one God anointed as the Messiah.
Samuel’s anointing of Saul was step one in the ascension of Saul as the leader of Israel. We read, “As [Saul] turned away to leave Samuel, God gave him another heart; and all these signs were fulfilled that day.” (1 Sam. 10:9) Clearly, God worked through Saul early on as he became established as Israel’s king. Saul quickly “fell into a prophetic frenzy…” (1 Sam. 10:10) The people who witnessed Saul prophesizing asked, “What has come cove the son of Kish? Is Saul also among the prophets?” (1 Sam. 10:11)
The second step in Saul’s ascension took place when Samuel summoned the people to Mizpah, a fortified city just north of Jerusalem, to answer their cry for a king. Samuel narrowed the selection down to a tribe and then a family and then to Saul, but Saul could be found nowhere. He was hiding “among the baggage.” (1 Sam. 10:22) Then the “people shouted, ‘Long live the king!’” (1 Sam. 10:24)
Samuel had serious reservations about anointing a king; nevertheless he told the people the rights and duties of the king and “wrote them in a book and laid it up before the Lord.” (1 Sam. 10:25) This constitution established that the people were subordinate to the king and the king was subordinate to Yahweh. Not everyone was pleased, and some “worthless fellows,” probably belonging to the larger tribes such as Judah and Ephraim who resented having a king selected from the small tribe of Benjamin, said, “How can this man save us?” (1 Sam. 10:27) They despised him and brought him no presents.
The third step in Saul’s ascension came when King Nahash of the Ammonites terrorized the Gadites and the Reubenites, gouging out the right eye of each man in order to shame them. When 7,000 men escaped from the Ammonites and took shelter in the city of Jabesh-gilead, Nahash laid siege to the city.
The city asked for a seven-day reprieve, in hopes of securing assistance to protect themselves. If none would come, they would submit to having their right eyes gouged out. When Saul learned of this, “the spirit of God came upon him,” and he cut two oxen in pieces and sent the parts throughout Israel, threatening to do the same to any man who did not enlist to fight with him. HIs act recalls the body of the concubine which was cut into 12 pieces and sent as a warning throughout all of Israel. (Judges 19:29)
We are told that 300,000 warriors from Israel, the northern kingdom, and 70,000 warriors from Judah, the southern kingdom, enlisted in Saul’s army. Saul then defeated Nahash to the acclaim of Israel. In chapter 12, Samuel challenged the Israelites saying, “Here I am; testify against me before the Lord and before his anointed. Whose ox have I taken? Or whose donkey have I taken? Or whom have I defrauded? Whom have I oppressed? Or from whose hand have I taken a bribe to blind my eyes with it? Testify against me and I will restore it to you.” (1 Sam. 12:3) The answer is no one. Samuel had ruled fairly over Israel. He had not succumbed to corruption as had his sons and many other officials.
Author Eric Metaxas spoke brilliantly this week at our church on the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Metaxas noted that we live in an age of “the anti-hero,” where newspapers and people tear down leaders and find fault constantly with them. “This becomes its own lie,” he noted. “We look for bad instead of good in our leaders. There is good and bad to be found in each person, but just because a person is imperfect does not mean that we cannot learn from them or be inspired by them,” noted Metaxas.
Indeed, the Bible is full of fallible characters. The Old and New Testament are collections of imperfect people with the exception of Jesus, God’s own Son. Nevertheless, God uses imperfect people as his instruments for grace and mercy. The world needs good leaders and exemplars. We need persons whom we can look up to, who are trying to do good and whose good far outweighs their faults. Samuel is one example. He is a leader who was not corrupted. In whatever area of society we serve, we are called as Christians to serve well and to serve honestly and compassionately.
I receive have heard more complaints about reading the psalms from participants in The Bible Challenge than any other book of the Bible with the exception of Leviticus. Readers struggle with the constant requests by the Psalmist for revenge on others. Today we read,
O my God, make them like whirling dust,
like chaff before the wind.
As fire consumes the forest,
as the flame sets the mountains ablaze,
so pursue them with your tempest
and terrify them with your hurricane.” (Ps. 83:13-15)
The Psalmist often models anger, not compassion, judgment, rather than mercy. We can see our own shadow side in his words. It is good that we are troubled by many parts of many psalms. The psalms clearly represent the voice of man speaking to God. Read them with care, and look for gems of wisdom among the emotional cries for our enemies to be punished.
As Judas betrayed Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter reached for his sword and cut off the ear of a slave named Malchus, who was with the soldiers and Jewish police who came to arrest Jesus. When we talk about God working through imperfect people, Peter is a perfect example. We rarely imagine the disciples packing weapons, but Peter carried a sword and was prepared to use it. Fortunately, he was not terribly effective with it, and merely cut off the ear of the slave, who was probably unarmed.
Jesus castigated Peter saying, “Put your sword back into its sheath.” (John 18:11) Ever since, Christians have debated whether or not the use of force is moral. We live in a violent world and with people and leaders who are motivated by evil. What would happen if these people could not be put in check by strong forces to protect the vulnerable? The mass proliferation of weapons, however, has become a scandal on the face of predominantly Christian countries. There is a Simon Peter in each of us.
John alone mentions that the “Jewish police” were with the soldiers and Judas, when Jesus was arrested in the garden. John’s Gospel is the most anti-Semitic gospel. In many ways it is the most beautiful, mystical and philosophic gospel, and it should never be dismissed solely because it can lend itself to anti-Semitic thinking. Readers, however, must be careful. Tensions between Jews and Christians were heightened by the time that John wrote his gospel, which probably explains its anti-Semitic tone.
John’s Gospel offers more detail than the Synoptic Gospels about Peter’s denial of Jesus, making the sting of denial even more powerful when the cock crowded. (John 18:27) Jesus was then taken before Caiaphas and later to Pilate. There was a dangerous closeness between the Jews and the Roman oppressors. Living under tyranny, people learn to keep silent and how to function under a despot.
It is chilling to see the close relationship today between the Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow Kirill and Vladimir Putin. The Patriarch has sided with Putin at the very moment when the Church should speak out. The Orthodox Church in the Eastern Ukraine is deeply divided, and Kirill does not want to see Orthodox Ukrainians shifting towards the West and away from his control. Like many Christian leaders around the world, Kirill is torn between his national sympathies, fear of speaking out against a despot, imperiling the Church and confronting evil.
Jesus was not divided. He said, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.” (John 18:36) The power games played by Russia, Iran, China, North Korea, Syria and Pakistan are not the ways of Jesus. America succumbs to its own power games. We must be careful. The great challenge for Christians is how to stand firm in the face of evil. We cannot negotiate with evil and with bullies.
Jesus told Pilate, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37) Both Hitler and Stalin and now Putin claim a fondness for the Church. Not of them have lived Christian lives. Rather, they have used the Church for their own purposes. Pilate asked a haunting question, “What is truth?” (John 18:38) The truth is complex. It is colored by our nationality, religion, gender, age, socio-economic status, sexuality, family upbringing and many other factors. Nevertheless, we are called to search fiercely for the truth, to find it and to live to the best of our ability by it. When the truth is sacrificed in any relationship, all is in peril.
My kingdom is not from this world. (John 18:36)
For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice. (John 18:37)
What is truth? (John 18:38)
Who are your imperfect heroes? Do you believe that the media, biographers and people today act excessively in taking down heroes and being overly critical of leaders? Can Christians justify the use of force? If so, to what extent can they use force? Can Christians sell weapons? What is truth for you? Is it complicated or simple? Where do you find truth? In what relationship of yours is truth in peril?
Gracious God, we are imperfect. We have led lives marred by faults. Each of us lives with regrets for things that we have said and done or left unsaid and undone. We offer you profound thanks that you still work faithfully through each of us, despite our unworthiness. May we recognize and give thanks for how you work through the imperfect lives of those around us as well. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania