Kings and Shepherds: Power Corrupts… (1 Samuel 9; 17:33-37)

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This post has spun out of material I heard in the Mars Hill Bible Church Sermon ‘How To Use The Bathroom in a Cave’ by Kent and Ed Dobson. I go to a different place with it, so it’s worth checking out the original sermon here.

Kings are shepherds.

That’s the metaphor the Bible uses, for kings and priests and people in authority. The flock needs someone to lead, someone to defend, someone to care. The shepherd is in charge and the flock follows.

That’s why it’s important to note that, when David shows up, well before he takes the throne, he’s depicted as a literal shepherd, and a good one at that. When explaining why he thinks he can take on Goliath he describes how he got between his sheep and wolves, bears, lions, how he fought wild animals and won and protected his flock. Even if you don’t know how the story turns out, David’s obviously already a hero in waiting – he’s a good shepherd, surely that means he’ll make a good king?

But the Bible has a problem with kings. Sure they’re anointed by prophets and appointed by God, but the whole monarchy thing seems to be a Plan B at best. After all, look at how we’re introduced to Israel’s first king, Saul, long before the heroic David turns up. Saul’s looking after his father’s donkeys, but they go missing and the only reason he gets them back is that he encounters a seer during the search. The guy can’t even look after a bunch of donkeys, we should be asking questions about how well we should expect his reign to turn out.

And that’s how the story goes – the bad shepherd proves to be a bad king, and needs to be replaced by the good shepherd who goes on to become Israel’s greatest king. It just goes to show that you should always pay attention to the metaphors.

But power corrupts, so they say, and it’s true. David was a good shepherd, a man after God’s own heart, yes, but one day there came a point when he saw a beautiful but married woman bathing and decided that, as king, the rules didn’t apply to him; the shepherd who refused to kill an enemy in order to take his throne is now a king who plots to kill a friend in order to take his wife. As a young man he sought to end the oppression of the Philistines; as an old man he doesn’t even act to get justice for his own daughter.

If the man who wrote Psalm 23, who toppled giants, can fall so far, is it any wonder that the Bible has an ambiguous attitude towards kingship?

And so maybe the idea of power is one of our idolatries. Many Christians love the idea of getting together to vote for ‘their’ candidate, or ‘their’ party. We follow mega-pastors who can declare an internet war with a single tweet, we want to proclaim our countries as ‘Christian’, regardless of the atrocities in which they’ve been involved. We love our kings, so much so that we’re inclined to turn a blind eye to when they’re less than noble shepherds. Because, when it comes down to it, we want our leaders to kick ass.

And yet there’s the key to all this. After all, it’s not the idea of a king itself that the Bible has issues with, it’s that there’s already a King and we’re too quick to try to put someone else on his throne. God is King, and, through Jesus, his throne is a cross. When he’s tempted in the wilderness with the trappings of kingship (“Rule the nations! Never see you or your people go hungry! Never suffer for your rule!”) he rejects the short cuts of temporal and economic and political power. When he needs to demonstrate what a true king looks like, he wraps a towel around his waist, washes the feet of his friends, then heads out into the night to face the nails of Calvary.

That’s why such a big deal is made over Jesus being the Good Shepherd.

Because that’s what a real King looks like.

King Saul and the Witch of Endor: It’s not about the Ewoks (1 Samuel 28:3-25)

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I’ve been writing this blog long enough to be comfortable in making a confession: some biblical stories are just awkward.

Especially when they take place in Endor, which as far as I’m concerned is a moon in Return of the Jedi.

Here’s the deal: while Saul is still nominally king of Israel, he’s been rejected by God. The new king in waiting, David, is growing in strength, and the metaphorical wheels have come off Saul’s reign. He finds himself facing a serious battle with the Philistines, and while it’s standard practice to ask God what to do in this situation, the doomed Saul is getting no reply.

This is where it gets messy.

None of the usual means of enquiring from God are working, so Saul tells his servants to find him a witch.

This is how far from grace Saul has fallen. Leviticus 20:6 says “ I will set my face against the person who turns to mediums and spiritists to prostitute himself by following them, and I will cut him off from his people.” Saul is on a sticky wicket here, especially as he’s previously outlawed mediums. Now he thinks one will help him get a message from God.

This is why this story is awkward: it works. Or seems to at least. They find a witch, and Saul visits her disguised as an old man. And then something weird happens. She appears to summon up the… Ghost? Spirit? of the prophet Samuel.

I don’t know what to do with this.

On one hand it implies that this stuff is real and dangerous; fair enough, as there’s no evidence that the source of ‘Samuel’s appearance is anything good. Fair enough.

But the message he gives is right. God has rejected Saul, he has appointed David to be king. The battle does end in Saul’s death. So is this God allowing a message through in extraordinary circumstances? Doesn’t that just seem wrong somehow? Am I using too many italics here?

But wait – maybe this whole thing becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe, up to this point, Saul had a chance to end his reign in a better way? Maybe the message from ‘Samuel’ messes with Saul’s head so much that it affects the outcome of the battle? The man was tormented by an evil spirit at one point, and maybe shows signs of depression – the decision to visit the witch may have been more catastrophic than he expected. Maybe God’s earlier silence forces Saul to face the consequences of disobedience throughout his reign, leaving him easy prey for whatever spiritual mojo is being used by the witch.

The simple fact is, I don’t know what to do with this story. Saying it warns us not to get involved with mediums is one thing, but there seems to be more going on than that. And I don’t know what that is.

Any ideas? Leave a comment!

 

Kids in the Temple, or how getting your geek on can help illuminate the Bible (Luke 2:41-52; 1 Samuel 3) – #BigRead12

You don’t hear this often but the Bible is a very geeky book.

I don’t mean that it makes jokes about Battlestar Galactica, or that it pontificates about privacy issues inherent in Google or Facebook. But a geek can spot an obscure reference at a hundred places, and that’s a great skill to have when you’re reading a book full of obscure references.

Part of that is due to what the Bible actually is – it’s not a single book but a collection of writings from a bunch of different authors, originating across different times, places and contexts. And, to extend the geek metaphor, those writers tend to be ‘fans’ of one another, throwing in quotes and references to each other in order to make a point.

Here’s an example of this I came across recently. We know next to nothing about Jesus’s childhood – he’s born in Bethlehem, then we hear nothing until he’s 30 and getting baptised by John the Baptist. Except for one story.

Luke 2:41-52: Jesus is 12, and he and the family have been to Jerusalem for the Passover festivities. Now, because people used to travel in convoy, everyone looking at each other, Mary and Joseph have been travelling home for a day when they realise Jesus isn’t with them.

(I know that fills modern parents with utter horror , but all I can say is that it was a different time.)

After three days they find him, sitting in the Temple having in-depth philosophical conversations with a bunch of religious teachers. Mary and Joseph were probably about to ground him for eternity (which would have been a theological nightmare), but the point of the story is to illustrates Jesus’s passion for God and his genius for teaching; after all, he’s only 12, not quite a man in Jewish thought, and yet he’s going toe-to-toe with priests. This is a big deal.

But what’s interesting here is how the story ends in verse 52: “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.” Because that’s a near exact quote that describes someone else: in 1 Samuel 2:26, the boy who would grow up to become the prophet Samuel is said to have “Continued to grow in stature and in favour with the LORD and with people.”

Now, you might say this is a coincidence, but I don’t think it is, simply because of what goes on to happen in 1 Samuel 3. Because here we have Samuel who, in Jewish tradition was said to be 12 years old at the time, getting called by God in the Temple, which leads to him undergoing a learning experience with a priest. Hmm.

So what does this mean?

I don’t know.

I mean, I’m convinced the link is intentional, but I’m not entirely sure what it illuminates. Maybe it’s the idea that God will raise up servants even at a young age. Maybe it’s the idea of a young man standing between two eras – Samuel was the bridge between the Judges and the Prophets, Jesus stood on the cusp of a new phase of God’s salvation plan. Maybe linking Jesus with the first of the Prophets establishes Christ’s own credentials.

I’m not sure.

Seriously, I’m not sure – if you have any ideas, please leave a comment. But that’s not the point, because the fun is in the discovery. Look for those obscure quotes and references and hints, track them down, try to figure out why the writer decided to use it. Because those learning curves will be valuable; they’re always valuable.

In short, get your Bible geek on!

 

Any Old Iron: David and Goliath (1 Samuel 16:19-22; 1 Samuel 17)

(This post was inspired by an article over at Follow the Rabbi, a biblical background resource that’s well worth checking out.)

As well as the issues in yesterday’s post, there’s another relatively ignored issue bubbling in the background of the story of David and Goliath, the fact that the Israelites were at a distinct tactical disadvantage – they had no blacksmiths.

Turn back four chapters. The Philistines have control over iron-making technology, which means only two people in Israel are armed with swords and spears: King Saul and his son Jonathan. So as well as being intimidated by Goliath, the Israelite army is also being intimidated by their lack of technology.

So when Goliath is described, we don’t just find out about his height; we also find out that he’s practically covered in metal – the guy’s a walking tank. It’s no wonder people were terrified.

(It should be noted that, while the rank and file were at a disadvantage, Saul still had armour, a sword and a spear, as well as being a pretty big guy himself. And yet still he didn’t face Goliath.)

Step forward David, who’s armed with… a sling. He’s offered Saul’s armour, but of courses it’s too big for him, and besides, he’s a shepherd. He’s used to slings – he’s used them to dispatch lions and bears in the course of his shepherding duties. More importantly, he’s always trusted in God to save him from those wild animals, so why should an armoured giant be any different?

(That’s another difference between Saul and David – 1 Samuel 14, God defeats a Philistine army on Israel’s behalf. And yet here Saul is terrified – doesn’t he trust God to do the same thing again?)

And so David goes out, faces Goliath and brains him with a rock launched from his trusty sling. This is more brutal than it sounds – the rock would have probably been around the size of a cricket ball, and could be slung up to 100mph. The Philistines may have had a metal-working advantage, but David’s sling wasn’t exactly useless.

And yet this is almost unimportant, as we learn from David’s epic speech as he confronts Goliath: “All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves, for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”

In your face, Philistines!

In your face, King Saul.

The Bible is acutely aware of the dangers of fetishising military technology; take Psalm 20:7, for instance:

“Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.”

Or Isaiah 31:1:

“Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help,
who rely on horses,
who trust in the multitude of their chariots
and in the great strength of their horsemen,
but do not look to the Holy One of Israel,
or seek help from the LORD.”

Once you rely on something other than God for your power, you’re in trouble. Saul was focused on the wrong things, thinking from a worldly, human perspective; David was focused on God, on trusting in the Lord to save his people.

And that’s why David ended up becoming Israel’s greatest king.

Giant Killing: David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17)

It’s one of the most famous stories in the Bible. It’s a Sunday School favourite and it’s a metaphor-stroke-cliche. Two armies face each other across a valley, but the whole confrontation boils down to just two champions – one a boy with a slingshot; the other… The other is a giant.

David and Goliath.

But here’s the thing. The story links to some of the Old Testament’s stranger corners, and perhaps becomes the climax of a national phobia that has persisted for centuries. Because Goliath isn’t the only giant in the Bible, and therefore this famous story plays in to some primal fears that haunted the birth of Israel itself, and shows why David, not Saul, is destined to be the country’s greatest king.

The books of Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy tell of what happens to the Hebrews after God breaks them out of slavery in Egypt. During their forty years wandering in the wilderness, they prepare to move into the Promised Land, which is already inhabited. Which fits into a conquest narrative quite nicely, except for one thing – some of those inhabitants are giants.

Well, maybe not giants in the Hagrid sense, but certainly men of great stature. This is flagged up when Moses sends twelve spies into the Promised Land to see how the land lies. Two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, reckon they can take it; the others spread the idea that the place is a deathtrap, at least partly because it’s full of giants and men of great power. And then they say something that must have chilled their audience to the bone.

“We saw the Nephilim there.”

This is something frightening. This is something primal. Because back in the days just before the Flood, the Nephilim walked the earth, heroes and giants and men of great and terrible reputation. Their origins were murky, perhaps even supernatural, and were part of a wickedness so great that it took a Flood to end it. Even now, as Israel looked set to enter the land, their spectre still stalked the land.

There were the Anakites, descendants of the fearsome Anak and Arba. There were the Emites, strong and numerous. There were the Rephaites, who had been defeated by Israel’s cousins the Ammonites, and there was Og, king of Bashan and his 14 foot bed. There were the Amorites, tall as cedar trees..

Giants.

And so the people are terrified of facing them, which would be understandable if it weren’t for the fact that they’ve already seen God smash Egypt, the most powerful empire of the time. Their paralysing fear of these giants is less understandable self-preservation and more a symptom of their lack of trust in God. Ultimately, of course, Israel would overcome their fear – Caleb would go on to defeat the sons of Anak (which is fair enough, as he was one of the two spies who said this could be done in the first place); Moses would defeat King Og. The land would be conquered, but only when a generation had arisen that believed in God more than they believed in Egypt and giants.

And so now, hundreds of years later, Goliath faces off against the whole Israelite army and he has them terrified. And maybe that’s because he’s another of these giants, tapping into fears that were present even back in the time of Moses; Noah even. Even Israel’s own man of great stature, King Saul, seems powerless in the face of Goliath.

And yet along comes David, the youngest son of Jesse, a lowly shepherd boy, who takes his slingshot and fearlessly confronts Goliath. And thus the giant is slain. It’s a moment that confirms that God is with David, and that David trusts in God, in ways that Saul can only dream of. Because David is a man of faith, a young man willing to battle giants because he knows that God is with him. It’s that faith that sets David apart from Saul; the same willingness that set Caleb and Joshua apart from the other spies.

And they become heroes, not because of their size, not because of their military prowess, but because of their faith. And because, despite the history and the stories and the primal fears, God is still bigger than any giant.

(There’s a follow-up post to this here.)