Commentary on 1 Samuel 15:34—16:13
“Samuel then went to Ramah” (1 Samuel 15:34; 16:13).
This simple narrative statement does a lot more then inform the reader where Samuel is physically going. The exact phrase frames this week’s text, repeating itself at the beginning and ending of the passage. The phenomenon has a fancy biblical studies term, a Wiederaufnahme, or a “repetitive resumption.” But despite its weird name, it is really a simple concept. By using a similar or even identical phrase at the beginning and ending of a passage (in this case, the phrase “Samuel then went to Ramah”), the narration is taking a brief pause to go into a tangent. This digression functions as sort of a parenthetical remark, like an excursus. The “repetitive resumption” may break the narrative flow, but only to provide a theological perspective or a side story to complement the primary story. This phenomenon occurs throughout the Hebrew Bible (other examples include Genesis 37:36 and Genesis 39:1). When you see it, you can imagine a story teller, pausing, with a side explanation or story. This week’s reading contains a bit of a pause from the main thread concerning the rise and fall of Saul.
And right away, we read a theologically difficult phrase, “And God regretted/was sorry/grieved” (v. 35). How does an omnipotent and omniscient God regret anything? You may know the typical answers, that the phrase is showing us an aspect of a divine God in human terms. Similar phrasing appears in other sections of the Bible such as the period before the flood (Genesis 6:7) and the Judges cycle of repentance and deliverance (Judges 2:18). These passages give us a better sense of the concept of God grieving –- that God truly weeps and has compassion over his people. At the same time, I believe that it is wise to declare some aspect of God’s grief as simply too profound and mysterious for us to understand.
Samuel is clearly distraught over the activities of Saul as king. Although he began as a strong and faithful king, during the course of his reign, Saul became increasingly paranoid, perhaps infatuated with his own sense of rule. God asks Samuel the question, “How long will you grieve over Saul?” (v. 1). Of course, this question can be read in a multitude of ways. Is God frustrated with Samuel? Is God angry? Or is God truly trying to comfort Samuel? I believe all of these are true, but in the preceding passages, God shows much compassion to Samuel, thus the most natural reading of the question is that God wants to comfort his leader.
The opening question of verse 1 is comforting, but God does not stop there. He assures Samuel that it was God who “rejected him as king.” Herein lies a reference to 1 Samuel 8 when God is rejected by the people. God is now rejecting the failing kingship.
After comforting, God then promises a way to restore the kingship. By declaring that Saul was rejected, it presents a conundrum. Who is the next to lead this monarchy? In fact, God reveals the selection of a new king from the line of Jesse from Bethlehem (v. 1).
Interestingly, the promise of God is not one sided, but depends on obedience on the part of the recipient, Samuel, in order to receive the promise. Samuel prepares for proper worship (filling the horn, getting a heifer). He risks his life by entering dangerous territory. And he engages in a possible confrontation with a greater group as powerful elders emerge in fear.
In the ceremony, it is understood that the eldest son receives the anointing, natural for the Iron Age was a traditional time that favored the first-born male. But v. 6 delivers an enormous surprise when the eldest Eliab is rejected. In providing an explanation, 1 Samuel 16:7b gives this theological gem, “For the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”
God’s ways are often confounding to us, but that should not be surprising consider how little we know compared to the Omniscient One. God defies cultural convention, expected norms, even when norms may have good reason.
Normally, the next eldest son steps in as crown prince, but God continues to go down the list rejecting the next available candidate and the next and the next until there is none left.
Samuel knows that something is off so he asks “Is there no one left (v.11)?” Already Samuel is confused since the first-born has already been rejected. Samuel knew that the promise was made and that God was faithful, but son after son has been rejected.
It turns out that the youngest son was not present despite the declaration that the king would be “among the sons” (v. 1). David was so much not even on the radar that he did not make the journey. But just as God rejects the expected, he then selects the most unexpected.
The “repetitive resumption” appears, and the narrative picks up with Saul. But now we see kingship in new light, that God is active and surprising and most importantly, behind the Israelite king. The Davidic line begins, and unlike the institution of kingship, which was a human institution, God has accepted this kingship, which will transcend earthly rule, to the point where God will again grieve, comfort, promise, surprise and anoint in the form of Jesus the Messiah.