Fourth Sunday in Lent (Year A)

In the tradition in which I was raised, Bible study material often tried to present a “Central Bible Truth” for each lesson–the one thing that the biblical text said was important to “take home.”

April 3, 2011

First Reading
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Commentary on 1 Samuel 16:1-13

In the tradition in which I was raised, Bible study material often tried to present a “Central Bible Truth” for each lesson–the one thing that the biblical text said was important to “take home.”

In the reading for the fourth Sunday of Lent from 1 Samuel 16, that central Bible truth was usually the statement from verse 7 that humans “look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” On one level, this was a theological lesson: God loves you for your whole being, not as you outwardly appear.  On another level, it was an ethical lesson: try to view your peers as God views them.

While these are valuable lessons, to be sure, I often wonder how much we lose in our attempts to boil the narratives down to a single moral or theological instruction. What would happen, if instead of focusing on the future hero, we attended to the one performing the most action in the story?  What can looking at this text from the perspective of Samuel provide? In the introspective season of Lent, what might this text tell us about how we deal with transition, disappointment, and new possibilities for the future?

Samuel’s emotional state is important in this episode.  The first question the LORD asks the prophet is: “How long will you mourn?”  In the preceding chapter, Saul disobeyed the LORD’s instructions to put all of the Amelekites to death and destroy all of their goods.  Instead, he captured the king and claimed some of the livestock as booty.  Samuel refuses to walk with Saul any longer and when he turns to leave, Saul catches him by the robe, tearing a piece of fabric from it.  Samuel uses this incident as a metaphor, saying that the LORD is now tearing the kingdom away from Saul (15:27-28).  Despite their conflicts, Samuel still grieved over his long-time friend and king, knowing that God had rejected Saul (15:35).

The Hebrew verb for mourning here usually refers to mourning rites over one who has recently died.  It is the same verb form used when Jacob believes that Joseph had died (Genesis 37:34), when the wandering Israelites mourn those dead after a plague (Numbers 14:39), and when David mourns over the death of one son and the abandonment of another (2 Samuel 13:37).  Samuel knows that the man he had anointed and guided as the first king over Israel had failed. For all intents and purposes, the young Saul who came to the prophet searching for his father’s donkeys (1 Samuel 9) was dead to Samuel, and this fact grieved him.

Unfortunately, due to the Hebrew narrative’s terse tendencies, we have no idea how much time passes between Samuel’s mourning in 15:35 and the LORD’s rather blunt question (“How long will you grieve over Saul?”) in 16:1. It almost seems too soon to simply say, “get over it, get up, and go anoint the next king.” But God essentially commands him to do just that.

Notice the different emotional states Samuel experiences in this story.  In verse 1, he mourns the loss of his friend and perhaps the prophet’s own perceived failure at guiding him.  While in the previous chapter (and in chapter 13) he was bold enough to condemn Saul to his face, in 16:2 he feels fear: “If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” Even with his special connection to God as the prophet who anoints and rejects kings, Samuel still feels these vulnerable human emotions.

While the deity does ask Samuel how long he will remain in a state of grief, God does not condemn Samuel’s fear. Perhaps God does not condemn the prophet’s fear because it is not only a realistic response, it is rational.  The level of fear in the nation is heightened under the state of war, exemplified by the trembling city elders who instantly interrogate Samuel about his intentions (1 Samuel 16:4). Perhaps humoring the prophet, God suggests a ruse, instructing him to invite Jesse’s family to a sacrificial meal, without telling Jesse anything about the reasons for the meal.

After fears subside for all parties, Samuel begins his search for the new king based on the same expectations he had with his previous anointing.  Immediately when he sees Eliab, he assumes that he should be the next king.  After all, Saul’s physical stature was one of the distinctive attributes of the handsome first king who “stood head and shoulders above everyone else” (1 Samuel 9:2).

But God instructs him to unlearn his previous expectations.  While Samuel looks for a king based on the model of physical stature and poise, the LORD instructs him to suspend human logic and trust in Divine guidance. 

As each successive son passes before Samuel, one could imagine the prophet’s disappointment. He turns to Jesse, perhaps in bewilderment, and asks whether all of his sons were present.  When Jesse presents his youngest son, Samuel responds obediently to God’s voice, anointing David’s head with oil.  Then Samuel departs.

This is Saumel’s last real act in the story. Yes, after he dies in chapter 25, Saul consults with his spirit from Sheol (1 Samuel 28), but this marks the end of the prophet’s career. While his career was filled with disappointment and watching the unfulfilled potential of his first protégé, it ends in the hope for a future and new leadership under God’s next anointed, David. 

Biblical narrative will often not reveal the inner thoughts of characters, so when reading this text from the perspective of Samuel, we are left with many questions. How does the prophet face the disappointments of his career? The first prophetic word he ever uttered was a condemnation of Eli, perhaps the only father-figure he ever knew (1 Samuel 3:11-14). Even after he successfully led the Israelites against the Philistines (1 Samuel 7), the people came to ask him for a king, adding that his sons were as corrupt as Eli’s (1 Samuel 8).  After God reassures Samuel that the Israelites rejection is a rejection of God, Samuel anoints Saul as king over Israel, only to have his protégé fail at almost every turn.

Yet, in spite of Samuel’s grief and failings, the prophet remains open to God’s word and to new possibilities. While this may not provide a comforting “central Bible truth,” it does offer a realistic picture of the human condition and of the ways in which we might deal with disappointment. While we may often feel the grief, remorse, and guilt of past failings–real or imagined–God does not condemn us for them. Rather, God does provide God’s servants with guidance and new possibilities even when we may not see them.