< March 30, 2014 >

Commentary on 1 Samuel 16:1-13

 

You can have one of the most unforgettable dining experiences of your life at the Nalaga’at Center in the area of Jaffa in Tel Aviv, Israel.

The Center fosters engagement between the deaf and blind community with the greater public through artistic and cultural experience. Among their various activities at the Center, they run the Blackout Restaurant, completely staffed by visually-impaired service workers. They operate the restaurant in pitch darkness, and allow seeing people to experience the complexity of a meal from the experience of the blind.

Aside from the rave reviews of the food, one of the striking observations about those who experience the Blackout Restaurant is the way that the loss of sight allows for one to experience food in completely new ways. Without the crutch of vision, textures, flavors, temperatures, and nodes of taste are enlightened. It is amazing how the deliberate restriction of sight may enhance a dining experience!

A similar handicap of sight plays out in the narrative of the rejection of Saul in 1 Samuel 16:1-13. The failures of the judges and the encroaching Philistines set the conditions for the installation of monarchy over the tribes of Israel. As the inaugural king over the nation, Saul perfectly fits the prototypical characteristics of an ancient Near Eastern ruler. He was a military leader, and enjoyed wide populist support.

The typically laconic text redundantly emphasizes the physical characteristics of Saul: tall, majestic, strong, and handsome, characteristics much in line with the general understanding of ancient Near Eastern kingship as displayed in visual examples such as Naram-Sin and Ramesses II. Most significantly, before his rise, he was humble in spirit, despite his characteristically tall and physically attractive traits.

But the humility of Saul soon gives away to disobedience, and he consequently loses his favor with God. But kings do not have term limits in the ancient world. In particular, Samuel is despondent over the presence of the continued reign of Saul and the fate of Israel with his continued reign.

But God shows Samuel a different way. The opening verses show a remarkable dialogue between Samuel and God. God is empathic yet also challenging to the prophet, “How long will you grieve” (1)? God specifically instructs a way to worship, and assures the prophet “I have provided” (1).

Verse two shows a candid moment of authenticity as the prophet admits his physical fear. The response from God does not ignore the real feelings of terror. In fact, it is a completely justified feeling, as any hint of insurrection would bring unmitigated reprisal from the powerful king. But instead, God specifies his instruction. The prophet, with all his despondency and all of his fear, responds appropriately in verse four: “Samuel did what the Lord commanded.” The obedience of Samuel does not neglect all of the heaviness of the reign of Saul.

After traveling to Bethlehem, in the presence of Jesse and his sons, Samuel realizes and affirms the presence of the Lord’s anointed. There is no explanatory verse between verses six and seven, but surely, the subtext of the passage implies an inner thought bubble like “And Samuel beheld the sons of Jesse and sarcastically thought, ‘Really, Lord … really?’”

But by addressing this bewilderment, God delivers a magnificent response, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (3).

What follows is a painful audition for the king of Israel. Each one of Jesse’s sons comes before Samuel, and each one is quickly rejected. The text suggests that the tempo of the rejection as both swift and ruthlessly efficient. Samuel is confused and asks if there are any left.

Reluctantly, Jesse answers, “Well, there is the little one, but he is tending the sheep” (11). It appears that the inspection of Samuel is now following the heart of the Lord. He does not see with human eyes, but in congruence with God, he is looking at the heart. The sons of Jesse are not selected, and it is not a difficult decision. Either a son is anointed or he isn’t. And clearly none of them were anointed.

At the request of Samuel, the youngest finally comes. Naturally, he has small stature, as he is still a “boy,” a term repeated by Goliath in the following chapter. But despite the small stature, Samuel realizes that the youngest son, David, is the one anointed by God. Samuel ceremoniously anoints David in front of some surely perplexed brothers. And “and the spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward” (13).

The following chapters through the end of 2 Kings, show the four hundred year history of one of the longest singular familiar reigns in world history. Like the process of selection, it was a reign surely developed by God by eschewing the typical characteristics of kingship, and focusing on the heart that truly matter to God.

I wonder how much our own sight blinds us to God’s wishes, and prevents us from truly experiencing God’s intent. Perhaps the occasional experience of blindness can remind us how the gift of sight may prevent us from seeing the heart of God. Of course, you do not need to travel all the way to the Nalaga’at Center in Tel Aviv. Instead, 1 Samuel 16 implores us that sometimes we only need to deliberately close our eyes to see what God wants us to see.