I Samuel 9 – Anointing Saul

I Samuel 9 – Anointing Saul

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast April 6, 2008

Craig D. Atwood


Introduction                Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church on this Final Four Weekend. It is a busy day around town. The Provincial Children’s Rally is this Sunday at Fairview Moravian. Also, Historic Bethania has a special celebration today from 2-6. And tonight we have Worship in Wait in Will Willimon, the former chaplain of Duke University and current Bishop of the Methodist Church. Willimon is one of the most famous preachers in America and we are honored to have him. It will be my first time to read Scripture in front of a chaplain from Duke. I’ll keep my Carolina T-shirt under wraps. A local archivist this week told me the story of a man in Dublin who was looking for a parking space. He finally resorted to prayer and promised to give up Irish whiskey and attend church faithfully if the Lord would give him a parking space. Just at that moment he looked down the street and saw a vacant spot! Immediately he looked to heaven and said, “Never mind, Lord. I just found one on my own.”

            In our lesson this morning we are looking at the story of Samuel anointing Saul to be the first king of Israel. It is a long and fairly complicated story, and it should not surprise you by now that the story as we have it in I Samuel was probably constructed from two or three different sagas about the selection of the first king of Israel. One of the original stories was a about a young man who goes in search of his father’s donkeys and meets a traveling soothsayer who tells him that he will be king one day. Another story is about Samuel receiving a word from God about the man he should anoint as king. A little later we get a third story about Saul being chosen. The story that has come down to us is skillfully constructed, but there are clues that point indicate that it is a blending of older tales. For one thing it identifies Samuel as the seer, but prophets and seers were different types of people in ancient Israel. Prophets were religious leaders; seers were local diviners. Another clue is that the story says the seer has just arrived in town to bless the sacrifice, but Samuel appears to own a large house in town that can accommodate 30 dinner guests. There is also the curious fact that Saul does not have a clue that Samuel is the judge of Israel. Considering the fact that all of the tribal leaders had asked Samuel to appoint a king in the previous chapter, you would expect that the son of a powerful member of the tribe of Benjamin would know something about what’s going on. It is possible to put all of this together and smooth out the differences, but the most reasonable explanation is that the author of I Samuel took several tales about the election of Saul and put them together in a beautiful and rich tapestry.

Read   I don’t think we will have time to read and discuss the entire story. We’ll probably do this over two weeks. First I’ll read chapter 9.

Son of Kish                 Saul was the son of a powerful man. The word used to describe Kish is the same one used of Boaz in the Book of Ruth. It could refer to wealth or military power, and in the days of the judges probably meant both. As we saw in our study of Abraham, wealth was measured in numbers of animals and men you had in your household. In a world without a stable government, a wealthy man had to have a private army that would have included all of his sons. In those days, as in ours, wealth meant power in society. The storyteller is putting us on alert that Saul is not just a hillbilly looking for lost animals. He is the son of Kish.

            The storyteller assumes that we know enough of the folklore of the day to realize that the tribe of Benjamin was the most warlike of the tribes of Israel. It was small and controlled relatively unproductive hill country, but many of the bloodiest stories of the time of judges involved Benjamin. If you’ve read Senator Webb’s book about the bellicosity of the Scots-Irish who settled in the South, you’ve got some idea of the reputation of Benjamin. In other words, if you are going to look for a king to go out and fight your nation’s wars for you, you might want the son of a powerful member of the tribe of Benjamin. We are told other details about good old Saul. He was tall and handsome. 3000 years later, we know that attractive people make more money than unattractive people. They also receive better treatment in school and at home. So long as they are not blonde, they are considered smarter and better leaders. The same is true of tall people. Most of the time in Presidential races, the taller candidate wins. To say that Saul is both tall and handsome is a way of saying that he would be recognized by many people as a potential leader.

Folk Tale Elements    So far, this sounds a bit like a folk tale. There was a tall and handsome prince from the tribe of Benjamin who goes on a quest to find some lost animals. This idea of a quest that leads to something other than what you are seeking is common in folk tales. The hero leaves as an adolescent and return as a man ready to lead his people. You may recognize the story of Moses or Luke Skywalker. Many years ago a religion scholar named Joseph Campbell published a book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces in which he outlined the elements of this hero-quest theme. The story of Saul’s anointing fits the outline quite well.

            Saul thinks he is searching for lost donkeys when in fact he is being led toward the seer who will reveal his destiny. When they cannot find the donkeys, the boys seek help. The donkeys were not equipped with GPS systems, so one of the guys suggest they use the technology that was available. There’s a seer who lives around him. Let’s ask him.  Saul points out that they don’t have any thing to give the seer. That kind of help they needed requires a special gift, pun intended.

Seer/Prophet              On the way, the fellows run into some girls on their way to draw water. This is one of the bits of evidence that getting water was a job for women, as we saw in the story of the woman at the well. The girls give Saul a lesson in local religious customs. You need a seer to bless a feast before you can eat it. What is curious is that this was typically the role of the priest, so presumably this priest was also a seer. It sounds like the priest does not live in town. He traveled a circuit so he could minister to several villages each year, but as we saw earlier.

            At this point in the story we get a flashback. You may have thought that flashbacks were invented in movies, but here we have the biblical author using this technique. The reader suspects that something special is going to happen since the previous chapter ended with Samuel being instructed to find a king. So, when the anonymous holy man shows up in the village and they we find out it is Samuel, we can practically hear the music score swelling.

            This is a moment of destiny, but the author wants to make sure that we realize that this is no accident. He gives us a flashback to the day before when the Lord revealed to Samuel that he will meet the future king. “Tomorrow I will send to you a man from the land of Benjamin, and you shall anoint him to be the leader over my people.” God told Samuel that this Benjaminite would save the people from the wicked Philistines.

            What is a little surprising about this speech between God and Samuel is that there is no mention of their earlier conversation about how bad kings were. Here God tells Samuel that he has heard the cry of the people and how they have been oppressed. It is the same formula used in Exodus and in the Book of Judges. This has led to a lot of discussion among scholars as to which view of the monarchy was the original one. Did God appoint King Saul to save his people or did the people demand a king against the wishes of Samuel? It is entirely possible, though, that there were always differences of opinion regarding the monarchy.

            Another interesting thing is that God does not say Samuel should anoint the man as king. He uses a word that basically means leader (Nagid). It is possible that this was a very old story that was originally about Saul being identified (or made known – nagad) as a Judge, and that he later became a king. Later in the book Saul will be chosen as the king of Israel by the people themselves. We shouldn’t let these multiple versions of the selection of Saul bother us too much. Have you ever tried to put together the different stories about how Arthur became king? The great stories always have multiple versions and layers of meaning that drives historians and other rationalists crazy.

Meeting Samuel         Back to Saul and Samuel. When Samuel sees Saul approaching, the Lord tells him that this is the guy. Again, it is like one of those movies where you know who the hero is going to be by the bright light and music that surround him. What is clear in the story is that Samuel knows something Saul does not. Saul asks for the seer because he wants to know where his lost asses are, but we know he is going to find something that he is not looking for.

            Saul must have been more than a little surprised when the holy man tells him to go on up to the altar and to dine with him.  This is also a part of traditional folklore. Many stories involve a holy man or seer of shaman who breaks bread with the hero before revealing his destiny. One of the most famous versions of this is in The Empire Strikes Back. Luke Skywalker is on a quest to find a great Jedi warrior, but he gets stranded in a strange land. A funny little green guy invites him to share his dinner. Luke is frustrated at the delay and is dismissive of the help that the little guy offers. As they eat, Yoda reveals himself as the Jedi master who will train Luke.

            Before dinner Samuel assures Saul that everything will be all right. The lost donkeys have been found. We don’t know if Saul believed him, but he was probably impressed that the seer knew about the donkeys before he even asked him. Samuel then gives a hint about the greater news to come. He tells the young man that all of the hopes of Israel are turned toward him and his family.

            Saul naturally protests that he and his family are not important. He downplays the fact that his father is a powerful man, and points out that he is from a small clan in a small tribe of Israel. We can picture him saying that he is “just a simple country lawyer from North Carolina” or that he is just “a peanut farmer.” This protest from Saul, though, is part of a long tradition in the great stories. Moses protested that he could not lead the people out of Egypt. Jeremiah protested. King Arthur was a nobody. The future King Peter tried to tell the beavers that he was just a boy and could not save Narnia. We should not let Saul’s protest confuse us as to his qualifications. It is clear that Samuel chose someone who had the potential to unite the tribes and be victorious.

Saul’s Dinner with Samuel    Even though Samuel is sure that Saul is the right man, he does not rush the work of God. He spends time with Saul to see what kind of person he is. He invites Saul to the feast and he gives him the best piece of meat that he has reserved for a guest. He observes how Saul deals with being seated at the head of the table in a room of important strangers. Then they go up on the roof and talk. We aren’t told what they talked about, but we can imagine it pretty well. Samuel finds out about Saul’s background and training. They probably talked about religious matters and his devotion to the LORD God. And I am sure they talked about the weakness of the tribal confederacy and the threat of the Philistines. We can assume that Saul was impatient. All he wanted to know was where his donkeys were, but Samuel purposely tried his patience to make sure he would be a wise king. In other words, Samuel vetted Saul to make sure he was indeed the man God had chosen.

Anointing        Saul slept on the roof, which is still a common practice in traditional houses in that part of the world. The roof was safe and pleasant at night. I wonder what Saul thought about as he lay there staring at the stars in the night sky. We don’t know, but the next morning Samuel calls to him. They walk to the edge of town. By now Saul is probably convinced that he’ll never find his donkeys, or he may have wondered what other things Samuel might tell him. Even so, what comes next must have been quite a shock. While they are standing all alone, Samuel tasks a flask of oil and poured it on Saul’s hair and tells him that the LORD has anointed him to be the leader of the people of Israel.

            If you go to the Tower of London, you can see all of the implements that were used to make Elizabeth the Queen of England and head of the Church of England. It is quite impressive – robes, jeweled scepters, a throne, crown, and a flask of oil. The kings and queens of Europe were always anointed as part of their coronation in imitation of the anointing of the kings of Israel as recorded in the Bible. But Saul had no special robes, crowns, scepters, or jewels. It was just him and the holy man, standing by the side of the road. He must have wondered if Samuel had lost his mind. You anoint your guests’ heads as dinner or your servant anoints you in the morning before you leave the house. This was different.

            Oil was important in ancient society, and some oils were very expensive. It appears that some of the Mediterranean peoples used oil instead of money. It is possible that oil was associated with ancient magic and medicine. Most likely, in the Old Testament, oil was symbolic of the power of God flowing over a person. The meaning of the anointing is never explained in Scripture; it is simply assumed that this is what one does to proclaim someone king. What made this anointing special was not the oil; it was the one pouring the oil. Samuel, priest, prophet, and judge of Israel had chosen this tall man of Benjamin and had blessed him with sacred oil. He was now set aside for a special purpose far more important than working for his father.

Signs               In a section I did not read on the air, Samuel then gives Saul several signs to prove that what he has said will come to pass. This is also a part of the traditional call narrative. The Bible does not expect you to believe wondering prophets who promise you great things without having some validation. He tells Saul that he will meet two men near Rachel’s tomb who will confirm that the donkeys have been found, but that his father is worried. The allusion to Rachel’s tomb reminds us that the anointing of Saul is part of a much more ancient story of the ancestors. Rachel was the mother of Benjamin, Saul’s tribe. The ancient promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that the LORD God would look over them and their descendants are being fulfilled in this “modern” time. Rachel is not bereft of her children; one of them will unite the tribes and defeat the enemies of Israel. There are further signs at Tabor and Bethel. By the time Saul gets home he should know who he is and what he is meant to do.

Conclusion      We’ll continue with the story of Saul next week, but before we go, let’s ponder the meaning of this ancient and beautiful story. It is quite likely that some of the Israelites looked at this tall young man, and said: “He’s too young to be our leader. He doesn’t have enough experience to lead this great nation. We are threatened by enemies all around us, how can we trust a young man to lead us?” But God had decided it was time to break with the mistakes of the past. Young Saul was the chosen one who could unite the people in a common cause. He would find new solutions to old problems. The old priest Samuel anointed Saul, trusting in God’s word despite his youth. We know how this story turns out, but let’s not dismiss Saul too soon. He was chosen to rescue the Israelites and he will do that. Next week, we’ll see that Saul in religious ecstasy.

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