This summer Living Word Lutheran Church read together the first book of Samuel in the Hebrew Testament. Since we did not complete that series in worship, I offer a few thoughts to “wrap it up”—although it is part 1 of 2, so it isn’t actually over! Keep reading!
A complaint I often hear about the Hebrew Testament is that it is so violent, and the violence is often attributed to/blamed on God. Yes, there is a lot of blood in 1 Samuel. I think the stumbling block is not the content of the stories as much as our expectation of them. If we expect the Bible to be “guidance and advice on how to live our lives” in 2015 so that we “get to heaven” (ugh! That’s another blog post!), then all the violence seems very unnecessary and doesn’t help us understand our world. But the Bible isn’t about our world—it’s about a long ago and far away world, and how God interacted with it. From that we have a clue about how God interacts with us, including expectations, so it’s still valuable. All that to say, I think the violence is included because it is what God’s people knew in that world. They were attacking and being attacked from many directions. Having a king, like other nations had, was part of the attempt to alleviate the violence by having an organized military and a united kingdom under the leadership of one person, chosen by God for the job. But life was very violent. Because we live in middle-class white America, we have trouble understanding the pervasiveness of this violence; other cultures live similarly every day.
So, David is going to be king, which we know, but Saul, the current king, does not. Again we see that David is unwilling to harm the Lord’s anointed king, even though he knows that favor has been withdrawn from Saul. Saul does not know that David has been anointed, and has no such scruples for not harming him. Saul stalks David repeatedly; David twice has the opportunity to kill Saul, but refuses, instead taking something (a corner of his cloak, his sword and water jug) as proof that he had been so close.
This does not mean David is anti-violence. In chapter 25 he is quick to seek vengeance on Nabal (whose name means “fool”) for an insult. In later chapters, he joins forces with the Philistines against the Israelites and slaughters villages whole so there are no survivors left to tell his tales. He seems to play one side against the other to win friends and protection, as if he has to guarantee election to be king.
The book ends with Saul being fatally wounded by the Philistines and falling on his own sword to end his agony (a slightly different end to Saul begins the next book, 2 Samuel). Still, he is respected enough as king that his beheaded body is retrieved and buried.
So what are we to learn from this story? David is regarded as “faithful” because, despite his violence, he honors the statutes of the Lord, which Saul had forsaken. Saul repents several times, and promises not to harm David, but then pursues him once again. David seems loyal only to God and to himself, making agreements with Saul, Jonathan, and the Philistines on various occasions. He is concerned about being forced to worship other gods when Saul places him in exile by continuously hunting him; he does not want to die unfaithful.
I think this is a story about David, and how he came to be king. God is part of the story, instrumental in David’s success and Saul’s downfall. It is part of the memory of Israel, and helps us to understand the progression of faithfulness. Just because it is in the Bible doesn’t mean it’s “good” or redemptive, and it doesn’t mean we’re supposed to be like this. We are supposed to love David (maybe less in the next book!) as the greatest king Israel ever knew, and the prototype, perhaps, for the Messiah (which is why the folks in the New Testament stories are so surprised and disappointed at Jesus’ almost exclusive non-violence).
One thing I think we can learn is that the violence, while real and certainly part of the larger culture of the time, didn’t work. We see, looking at a long arc of this history, that even God’s kings will kill each other to get what they want. We are still surrounded by violence—probably more people get killed in our state every day than were killed in these episodes. We are immune to the violence around us—in the news, in video games, in TV and the movies—because it’s “out there” somewhere (if we’re lucky). The people of Israel could not escape violence, as we see it everywhere in these stories, and these are supposedly their best stories that shaped their identity. We too cannot escape violence; how do we respond to threat, terrorism, violence in our own time and place? Will the memory of our stories seem as shocking to those who read them in the future as these stories seem to us? Will we have any heroes? Will God be part of the story?