Commentary on 1 Samuel 8:4-11 [12-15] 16-20; [11:14-15]
God called Abraham to start a new community. Years later, God called Moses to free that community from enslavement.
These new beginnings were initiated simply with a vision for greatness and an encounter with a bush that did not burn, respectively. In his conversations with Abraham and Moses God neither mentioned nor hinted of the dangers that lay ahead. However, this new stage in Israel’s communal life, the movement from theocracy to monarchy, begins with a stern warning from God. God made it plain. Leadership by anyone other than God, was a bad idea.
Simcha Shalom Brooks suggests that new leadership was needed to address problems created by territorial expansion and population growth.1 “The Judahite community recognized the need for a new leader because Samuel was too old and his sons were too corrupt to inherit his office (1 Samuel 8:4-5).”2
Even so, installing a monarchy would be asking for trouble. Kingship, no matter how much Israel wanted it, no matter how attractive it might seem, was a bad idea. The validity of God’s warning would be played out again and again as Israel unwittingly moved toward embracing monarchy and left theocracy behind.
Israel was supposed to be unique because God would be its leader. Granted, the Israelites were wise enough to realize that Samuel’s sons did not qualify. They knew that something had to change. Yet, just as years earlier when an entire generation died in the wilderness because it could not imagine a life of freedom, this generation was unable to envision a nation led by God.
Samuel could have, but did not, remind the people of what happened in Egypt. With Joseph in power, when Jacob and his family migrated to Egypt they were given the best of everything. Once Joseph died, the best became a downward spiral to enslavement, an institution wherein Pharaoh owned and controlled everything — money, livestock, land, taxes, and people — an institution ironically initiated by Joseph during the years of famine.
Perhaps in hopes of avoiding a similar fate for a new generation, this time God made it plain. The king would take sons and put them to war. The king would take daughters and put them to work. (This happened in our own nation in WWII when young men went to war. In their absence women went to work). Furthermore, the king would gather resources, share them with his inner circle, and keep some for himself. Taxes would be taken and people put to work. Plus, even more frightening, there was the possibility that the king might abuse his power. The life and well-being of the nation was at stake. So many things could go wrong. The monarchy was a bad idea.
Bad idea or not, the people insisted and God relented. God (and later the people) chose Saul, whose only qualifications were that he was tall and handsome. As noted in 1 Samuel 9:2, Saul was “a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else.”
Nothing but height and good looks. The reader knows what Saul, Samuel, and the people do not know. These qualifications may get him approved by God and anointed by Samuel, but they will neither make him an effective ruler nor keep him in the exalted position.
Ultimately, tragically, Saul will fail at a job he neither sought nor wanted. How could he know that being sent by his father to find the family’s lost donkeys would end with him being privately anointed king by Samuel. Stunned, Saul objects, “I am only a Benjaminite, from the least of the tribes of Israel, and my family is the humblest of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin. Why then have you spoken to me in this way?” (1 Samuel 9:21).
As with Moses, God disregards Saul’s objection. Thinking that this would be sufficient, God equips Saul with a new heart (1 Samuel 10:9). This new heart even placed him among the prophets (1 Samuel 10:11, 12). Yet, even with a new heart something was still amiss. When the time came for the community to affirm his anointing, Saul could not be found. He was hiding among the equipment (1 Samuel 10:22).
Despite his God-given potential and early victories, Saul’s story ends tragically. An ill-fated sacrifice made in an attempt to inspire his troops pleased neither God nor Samuel. It was the beginning of his end (1 Samuel 13:1-15). Saul lost his connection to his family, his God, and the prophet who anointed him.
His son Jonathan, preferring David over himself, like his father Saul and much to his father’s displeasure, did not want to be king. His daughter, Michal, was in love with David. She even saved David’s life when she got word that her father Saul was determined to kill David. Desperately seeking God, Saul secured the services of a medium, a practice he himself had outlawed. Wounded in battle, he would commit suicide rather than have an enemy kill him. Many years later, Israel’s kingship would spiral downward until there was defeat by, exile in, and return from Babylon as well as loss to Rome years later in 70 CE. The monarchy was, indeed, a bad idea.
God’s words of warning are as relevant today as they were in biblical times. Leadership is not to be taken lightly, nor handled frivolously. Leadership is, ultimately, a matter of the heart. Although other leadership qualifications may be needed, the heart remains a constant in any circumstance. As will be seen in the life of David, good leadership is, indeed, a matter of the heart — a heart tuned to God and the good of all.
- Simcha Shalom Brooks. Saul and the Monarchy: A New Look. (Burlington, VT:Ashgate Publishing Company, 2005), 38-40.
- Alphonetta Wines, “Thinking the Unthinkable: God as Enemy — An Image of God in the Book of Job and Other Books of the Hebrew Bible” (PhD diss., Texas Christian University, 2011), 58.