Third Sunday after Pentecost

While promise, covenant and anointing have become exalted terms in both Jewish and Christian traditions, ancient Israelites perhaps had a more realistic view of what they entailed.

June 17, 2012

Alternate First Reading
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Commentary on 1 Samuel 15:34—16:13

While promise, covenant and anointing have become exalted terms in both Jewish and Christian traditions, ancient Israelites perhaps had a more realistic view of what they entailed.

Whether receiving a promise from, entering a covenant with or being anointed at the command of God, the people of God learned through hard experience that their relationship with their deity was no guarantee of security or success. In fact, the relationship to which these terms point was almost a guarantee of trouble ahead!  

For Abraham and Sarah, it meant leaving behind everyone and everything they knew in exchange for a land that was often ravaged by famine and a future that was uncertain. Later on, for Abraham’s descendants, it meant 400 years of slavery in Egypt, coupled with wandering in the wilderness and fighting against those who lived in the land that had been promised to them. David, on being anointed, was launched into an epic struggle for survival against a sitting king who single-mindedly worked to destroy him. Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof sums up the situation well when he says to God, “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?”

How did God choose these individuals, this nation? It’s never made entirely clear in the biblical texts, although 1 Samuel provides one interesting clue. We find it in the clustering of words that have “seeing” as part of their grammatical core (no less than eight times in this pericope). Beginning in 1 Samuel 16:1, when God tells Samuel to go to Bethlehem to the house of Jesse, the Hebrew literally reads, “I have seen among his sons a king for myself” (translation and italics mine).

Over and over again, the text, using wordplay, contrasts human-seeing with God-seeing. When Samuel sees David’s brother, Eliab, he thinks to himself, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is before the Lord.” But God tells him, “Do not look upon his appearance or on the height of his stature,” an allusion to Saul’s qualities as well as to the deficiency of human-seeing. God elaborates on this idea further, indicating that “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 

The passage comes to a conclusion in 16:12, after six additional sons are brought before Samuel, and all are found wanting. Finally, David is called in from the field, and we learn that he is, literally, “good for seeing,” or translated more smoothly as “good to look upon.” God then tells Samuel, “Arise and anoint him; for this is the one” (italics mine).  

Samuel then “took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.” God saw something in David that he didn’t see in the others, something important, and something that wasn’t visible to Samuel (or anyone else). Although we are never told what, precisely, God sees in David, the narrator, somewhat ironically, describes what would have been visible to humans — that David was ruddy and had beautiful eyes. At any rate, there is an alignment of God-seeing and human-seeing in the person of David. For both God and human, David was “good to look upon.”

Being anointed however, as was the case for David’s chosen and covenanted ancestors, did not entail anything so direct as a receiving a crown and moving into a palace. Instead, for David it meant entering a world of intrigue and danger. He had to dodge Saul’s spear, stay alert to Saul’s spying servants, and outwit and outrun Saul and his army who were intent on killing him. It meant life on the lam — a life marked by fighting and waiting — which would only end upon Saul’s death, years later.  

So living as God’s anointed, “gripped” by the spirit of God (Robert Alter’s reading), was probably more lonely and terrifying than anything David could have imagined.1 It was also a life thrust upon him rather than one he chose for himself. A life he couldn’t escape, even had he tried. This is not so unlike the judges upon whose spirit God settled or the prophets whom God called. Jonah, notably, attempted to evade this calling, but was famously unsuccessful! 

One wonders about other young leaders in history in whom God perhaps saw something, grasping them with a power that seemed to transcend their times and contexts. God-gripped and at risk, Martin Luther King Jr. penned his Letter from the Birmingham Jail to the clergy of his time who were questioning whether or not his call for justice and equality for African Americans was perhaps premature. “Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town.” 

A century earlier, the young Elizabeth Cady Stanton was compelled to live out a dangerous calling on behalf of women. In the Seneca Fall Declaration of 1848, in the face of enormous opposition, she wrote, “Now, in view of this entire disfranchisement of one-half the people of this country, their social and religious degradation — in view of the unjust laws above mentioned, and because women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States.”

“The Lord does not see as mortals see…arise and anoint, for this is the one.” King David, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Martin Luther King, Jr. were each singled out for a particular task and thrust into the conflicts of his or her age. Unlikely candidates, they championed causes beyond themselves, doing what needed to be done. 

1Alter, Robert, The David Story:  A Translation With Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel (New York/London:  W. W. Norton, 1999).