Fourth Sunday in Lent (Year A)

The story of David’s anointing in 1 Samuel 16 follows a traditional biblical storyline in which God shows unexpected favor for a younger sibling, singling out an unlikely candidate.

Illuminated Manuscript, Gospels
Illuminated Manuscript, Gospels, Walters Art Museum Ms. W.592, fol. 24a, by Walters Art Museum licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

March 26, 2017

First Reading
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Commentary on 1 Samuel 16:1-13

The story of David’s anointing in 1 Samuel 16 follows a traditional biblical storyline in which God shows unexpected favor for a younger sibling, singling out an unlikely candidate.

This passage also occurs in Year B’s semi-continuous readings from 1-2 Samuel, where the larger context can be more thoroughly examined.

On the surface this may seem a sweet story affirming the value of “the least of these.” At least, that is the way it has often been read. But readers should not minimize the conflicts into which the young David is thrust by God’s choice and Samuel’s actions. As the story demonstrates, God’s call on individuals can appear straightforward and even optimistic in the beginning, but can develop in unexpected and even tragic ways over the course of a lifetime.

The passage’s first verse looks backward to what has already happened: When the people of Israel ask for a king, Samuel anoints Saul, who appears at first to exhibit some leadership qualities. But almost immediately his authority is undermined by a string of clashes, confusing to readers as well as to Saul, with both Samuel and God. In these clashes, Saul falls victim to unclear instructions, unmanageable circumstances, and a zero-tolerance policy in which his failure seems both inscrutable and inevitable.

Saul’s exact offence is unclear, and commentators struggle to reconstruct it, augmenting the impression that he has been given tests with no correct choices. Latitude for decisions and grace for mistakes are not given to Saul. In these conditions his psyche unravels, and we watch him stumbling painfully along until, by 1 Samuel 15, he is decisively rejected by God for, of all things, showing mercy to an enemy. His downward slide continues until his death in 1 Samuel 31.

But the problem for David is somewhat different. Samuel secretly anoints him as God’s chosen future king while Saul is still reigning, and for the next fifteen chapters, that is, most of the story, the conflict between the two kings Samuel has anointed, a conflict neither of them created, balloons from rivalry and jealousy to deadly hostility: the recognized king of Israel, who still had a following, periodically determined to destroy his hidden heir, who time after time eludes his grasp. Saul’s dynasty is doomed and his reign blighted. We flinch, watching him seesaw back and forth between rigidity and humility, between savagery and nobility, losing ground not only in God’s eyes but in those of his family and readers. We pray never to be Saul.

At the same time as Saul’s story lurches to its tragic end, David’s story unfolds with what seems at first to be naïve zeal, and soon becomes mixed with crafty and even morally objectionable behaviors. Unlike Saul, David is gifted with favor by nearly all who meet him, including Saul’s own family members. He is pressed into Saul’s service, living at the palace, and even when forced to flee he escapes with several hundred supporters.

He tries to extort a “protection” payment from Nabal, and marries the widow his actions create. He takes refuge with Achish, the king of Gath in Philistia, and proceeds to double cross him by decimating villages of other peoples while pretending to raid Israelites. He is spared going into battle against his Israelite kin only because the other Philistine leaders, fortunately, mistrust him.

David’s scramble toward leadership over Israel continues with Saul’s death. It takes him seven years and much political maneuvering to gain control of the king’s domain. And just at the point that everything seems to be smoothing out, just as the story comes to a resting place, his acquired taste for conquest leads him to disgraceful actions that will shadow him for the rest of his life and beyond, relentlessly destroying his own family. Two entire kingdoms and several surrounding nations are time after time upended by his and his family’s actions. The insignificant shepherd boy, overlooked even by his own family, seems very long ago and far away.

The story of David’s anointing as Israel’s future king, beset as it is by tremendous ambiguity both human and divine, is by no means simple. The lessons to be drawn from it can range widely, depending on interpretive context. Most often, the story and its psychological depth are taken on their own terms, with sympathy for an aging, disappointed, and fearful prophet, on the one hand, and on the other hand for a hitherto unknown youth who has been left behind in the field while his father and brothers attend a sacrificial feast.

There is a symmetry to this moment: Samuel himself was once a youth to whom divine favor had unexpectedly passed, forsaking the family of his own mentor Eli. Samuel’s story, like David’s, like that of most adults, was also characterized by early promise that became more ambiguous as his life events unfolded.

Darkness and dread shroud the story’s beginning: Samuel is despondent over his failure and conflict with Saul, and even afraid for his life. The God of light and truth suggests a ruse in order to get a job done whose real value is somewhat unclear. Most kings are anointed as they ascend to the throne, not years before. So why put a boy in danger by making him into a rival, except perhaps to suggest to readers that, through all the tangled episodes that follow, God’s thumb is on the scale in his favor?

Bethlehem’s leaders likewise express apprehension when Samuel arrives, though we aren’t told why. What do they know or sense about the prophet? What worries them? How do they react when they see what Samuel does? We aren’t told.

The story’s climactic line is heard only by Samuel: “The LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (verse 7). What is lacking in each of Jesse’s other seven sons is never stated, and except for a brief and none too complimentary role for Eliab in 1 Samuel 17:28, we never see them again. Reading forward through David’s life, we do see that, whatever his faults may be, they are not those of his predecessor Saul or of his contemptuous older brother. In fact, his extraordinary gift for charismatic leadership evoking loyalty and trust seems to be felt by most who surround him. Whether that gift ends up benefiting anyone, including David, remains an open question.

For better or worse, Samuel’s seemingly straightforward action changes an ordinary youth’s world. It tickles a hidden ambition that will grow in magnitude throughout his life, and in all history that follows. Ancient Israel’s self-understanding, and consequently that of both Judaism and Christianity, flow from this moment of David’s first affirmation from the outside world.