1 Samuel 8-11

Good morning! Today in 1 Samuel 8-11 we finally see the transition of “political” authority from Samuel the judge to Saul, Israel’s first king. “Political” is in quotation marks because there was no sacred-secular split in the manner of formal American structures today. Both Saul and Samuel are understood as leaders with divine authority who follow God, but after this time Saul and other kings will take over public leadership of Israel, while still relying on prophets like Samuel to convey God’s will to them and the people. This relationship will work well sometimes, but also cause mighty problems when prophets and kings disagree about the right course of action for the country. Royal leaders could use coercive military force to get their way, but prophets always had the “trump card” (so to speak) of divine authority on their side (if the people and/or king believed they truly knew God’s wishes).

All that is down the line a bit. Here at the beginning of chapter 8, we see the problem of succession that confronts any leadership custom that relies on personality. Samuel the well-regarded judge has the same woe as Eli—unrighteous sons. Therefore, the people demand a king and give as a key motivation their desire to be like other nations. God objects through Samuel that this displaces God as the only rightful sovereign of Israel (foreshadowing later fights between prophets and kings). Samuel warns about the royal exercise of power, including conscription into royal armies and palace provisions, royal prerogative to the best produce of Israel’s agriculture, and a “tithe” to the royal treasury of grain, wine and livestock. The burden of supporting a king will become onerous, but God will turn a deaf ear because the people have rejected God as their king. Nevertheless, the people insist and God (through Samuel) consents.

God selects Saul as Israel’s first king—he’s tall, handsome and popular. 1 Samuel 9 describes the circumstances by which Saul is chosen. Searching for wandering livestock, divine providence (and the suggestion of a servant—a notable biblical theme whereby truth comes through “small people”) leads Saul to Samuel, who was tipped off by God to be on the lookout for someone like Saul. Samuel sets Saul’s mind at ease about the donkeys, but calls him to consider the weightier needs of Israel instead. Saul protests that he’s from a humble family in a humble tribe. This humility recommends him as God’s favored one, according to the frequent patterns of God in the Bible.

Samuel anoints Saul at the beginning of chapter 10, using oil as a sign of prophetic authority and divine favor. (This is also where the term “Messiah” comes from, since it means “anointed one”.) Samuel gives Saul a detailed prophecy of what would come later in the day, confirming Samuel’s authority to rightfully anoint Israel’s first king. The euphoric frenzy that Saul feels later in the day is the external manifestation of what has happened internally: “God gave him another heart”. Samuel calls the people of Israel together and casts lots to publicly reveal whom God has chosen to be their king. When Saul comes up as the candidate, they have to go find him in hiding, but then (most of) the people acclaim him as their king. Saul is aware of the dissenters, but pays them no mind for now.

Saul’s first victory in defense of Israel comes in 1 Samuel 11. Enemy king Nahash of the Ammonites has been gouging out the right eyes of the Hebrews nearby. When Saul hears of this threat, he steps to the rescue. Sending parts of a body with a vital message could have been an understood ritual in those times, because Saul’s call-to-arms for all the tribes comes with the severed parts of an ox. (Remember that the prostitute in Judges 19 was dismembered and sent throughout Israel in order to call them together.) Saul’s victory over Nahash demonstrates his ability to command allegiance across Israel and cements his authority as their king. The dissenters are mentioned again, but Saul again declines to punish them on this day of victory, because he credits God for the success and not himself. Following Samuel’s lead, the people then effectively “install” Saul as their king at the town of Gilgal (where the unifying monument of 12 stones was set up after the Hebrews first crossed the Jordan at the beginning of Joshua). Everything seems to point to an auspicious start for this new model of Israelite kings, but divine and human doubts linger in the background. Happy reading!

Read 1 Samuel 8-11.

Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is 1 Samuel 12-14. Thanks for reading!

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