I Samuel 10 – Is Saul Among the Prophets?
Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Class, originally broadcast April 13, 2008
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. This week in Worship in Wait, we will have Rev. Charles Adams, who teaches at Harvard and is one of the most influential African American pastors. If you have gotten curious about Black theology of liberation, like much of the country in recent weeks, join us for worship this Tuesday at 11:00 a.m. in Wait Chapel. I just got back from Yale University last night. I presented a paper at a conference on the theme of religion and violence in early America. I talked about the Moravians as a peace church in a violent age. Forgive me if I am a bit sleepy this morning. The conference was a good reminder that issues of violence and religion are not new to America. The weapons change, but the sanctification of bloodshed remains with us. That provides a nice segue into our lesson from I Samuel this morning.
Signs Last week we left Saul being anointed by Samuel. No doubt Saul was a little confused by this holy man pouring oil on his head. In a section I will not read on the air, Samuel 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 wandering prophets who promise you great things without having some validation. Saul 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.
Change of Heart: Samuel tells Saul that he will have a change of heart and become a different person. Most English translations intentionally mistranslate a Hebrew word that is key to this text. Leb literally means “heart” but translators generally translate it as “mind.” The reason is that the ancient Hebrews believed that thinking took place in the heart rather than the brain. We use the word “mind” to talk about our thinking, so translators turn the Hebrew “heart” into an American “mind,” but “mind” is not a biological term. In an attempt to clarify the original text, translators have actually obscured an important aspect of the Old Testament: namely, that thinking and feeling are both part of the heart, which is the center of the person. To have a change of heart is different from having a change of mind because it involves the entire, living person. Samuel is warning Saul that before he becomes king, he will be inwardly transformed. This is important to Moravians because we talk a lot about a religion of the heart instead of a religion of the head. Religion of the heart affects the core of a person.
Read I’ll pick up the reading at ch. 10:5
Music: The description of the band of prophets at Gibeath-elohim is very interesting, and it shows that some aspects of ancient Israelite religion were not all that different from their neighbors. In the ancient world, music was not as common as it is in ours. We are accustomed to hearing tunes playing all the time. Music forms the backdrop of our lives, whether riding the elevator or shopping in the mall. Now that we have ipods, we have the technology to create a soundtrack for our lives so that our real lives will seem more like movies. It is hard to imagine a time before music was recorded, when it was as ephemeral as the sounds waves moving through the air. The ability to manipulate sound and to combine sounds into pleasant tunes was so remarkable that ancient people considered it a special gift of the gods or the muses. Even today we say that someone is gifted in music. That terminology is an echo of a time when this was meant literally. Not just anyone can sing or play an instrument even in our supposedly advanced era.
Music was also magical because of the effect it had on hearers. We are not entirely numb to the effects of music, but we are so surrounded by sound that we are rarely moved to action by a tune. Things were different in the days of Saul. Musicians played a vital role in the army, for instance. Troops were inspired to kill other humans with thrilling martial notes. As Gilbert and Sullivan wrote “When your heart is in your boots, and you’re threatened with rebukes; there is nothing brings it round like the trumpets’ marshal sound!” Ancient medical texts prescribed music for a host of ailments from nostalgia to neuralgia.
Most important, music was part of ancient religion. The book of Psalms is the hymn book of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, and the temple employed hundreds of musicians. One of the oldest bits of literature in the Old Testament may be the little song that Miriam sang after the Israelites escaped from Egypt. She and other women played tambourines and sang about God throwing horse and rider into the sea. Here in I Samuel we get a rare glimpse of the ancient practice of using music to drive prophets into ecstasy. It is hard to imagine that harp, flute, and tambourine could drive someone into frenzy, but this practice of using music to enter into a religious ecstasy is still evident among many tribal people. This gives a whole different twist to the idea of sacred music, doesn’t it?
It is not just anyone who will respond to music, though. Most Israelites who saw a band of wandering prophets were content to throw gifts to them and ask for a blessing. Only a few experienced what is to be beside oneself. This was one of those ambiguous blessings. Such prophets lived outside of polite society. They were considered dangerous and weird since they did not have normal jobs and families. They were those who dwelled in two worlds and who could see deeper realities invisible to everyone else. Modern Judaism and Christianity have become very rational religions and have distanced themselves from the wandering prophets of ancient Israel.
Prophetic Prince: I Samuel was not written by an anthropologist studying ancient religion, and the author assumes that we know all about these prophets since they were common in his day. What is important for the story he is telling is what happens when the handsome young prince Samuel has anointed meets such a band of religious musicians. The Spirit of God comes upon Saul and he falls into a religious frenzy like the prophets. This is not normal behavior for the man of a good family. It is certainly not the behavior one would expect of a king, but the storyteller uses this event as verification that God has chosen Saul. Samuel anointed him, but God confirmed the anointing with an outpouring of the Spirit upon him.
We do not know what Saul did or said when he was among the prophets, but we know that people saw him cavorting with musicians and shouting about the things of God. This linking of the anointing of Saul and the Spirit coming upon him was important in the Christian tradition. It is why some churches preach about an anointing by the Spirit that confers special powers, such as the ability to speak in tongues, prophesy or heal. Liturgical churches often use oil in baptism, confirmation, or ordination as a sacramental bestowal of God’s Spirit on an individual. It is important to note that there is no suggestion that the anointing by Samuel caused the Spirit to come upon Saul. Saul falling into ecstasy was something shocking, and almost unique.
Originally this story was used to buttress Saul’s claim to the crown. All of the stories about Saul becoming king assert that he was chosen directly by God. He did not need a formal, legal procedure to make him king; he was chosen by God and filled with God’s Spirit. Once again, we see that Saul was more like one of the judges, another Samson or Gideon, than like a king. But divine gifts are dangerous. This picture of Saul falling into ecstasy at the sound of music sets up a theme for the rest of the book. We will see Saul grow increasingly unbalanced, almost demonic. At one time, it was only music that could soothe his tortured mind and soul. The proverb “is Saul is also among the prophets” eventually becomes a taunt against him.
And he went home: After all this excitement, Saul went home. This is one of those phrases that is so true to life, we almost miss it. You wonder if Saul even remembered that his quest had originally been to find some straying braying animals. Some of you have had this type of experience where you get swept up in greater events. You, have a life-changing experience or encounter your destiny head on, and it feels like the world will never be the same. But you still have to return home and find that things are still the same. Auntie Em is waiting for you to come back from Oz. It is a bit disconcerting.
Saul told his uncle the briefest facts about his trip into the wild, but he holds some things back. He does not tell him that Samuel had anointed him and told him that he would a prince. Perhaps Saul had learned something from the story of Joseph. He was not about to say, “the holy man told me I’m going to be the king and reign over all of you!” Saul kept quiet about the kingship. This is one of those deep silences that is hard to interpret. Was this a further indication of Saul’s humility and feeling that he was unworthy for the honor of being king? Was it a sign of his reluctance to take leadership and put himself in danger? Some have taken it as evidence of a lack of faith, but I suspect that Saul was merely needed time to recover and make whatever sense he could of the events of recent days. Now that he was home, would it be better to say home or should he rise to meet destiny? I love this moment of silence in the story. It is a deep breath before the plunge, and it is so true to life even 3000 years later.
The Election of Saul: The election of Saul follows rather abruptly. Most biblical scholars are convinced that at one time this chapter followed chapter 8 directly. You may remember that in chapter 8 God told Samuel that by choosing a king, the people were rejecting God. 10:17 picks up right there as if the whole story of Saul and the anointing had not taken place. Samuel gathers the leaders of the tribes at Mizpah where the re-covenanting ceremony had taken place after the loss of the ark. Perhaps Samuel was reminding the people that they had been victorious at Mizpah without a king. Perhaps he was merely calling them together at the usual location for such momentous events. In any case, he begins by expressing his opposition to a monarchy, and then selects a king.
You might expect that the first king would be chosen from among the leaders of the tribes. Those who wished to be king would make their desire known and then the men would vote, perhaps by tribe. The process should have lasted many days, with public speeches and secret deals. Qualifications and experience would be discussed. Deals would be struck. Gifts and promises would be given. Alliances would form, and eventually there would be a compromise candidate who is selected by consensus to lead the people. This is the way popes are chosen, but all of the politics take place behind locked doors. In the old days, it was how the Holy Roman Emperor was chosen.
Our modern democratic process is a little different. We spend over a year choosing a president to lead us for four years. If we elected them for life, who knows how long campaigns would last! We insist that people who want to be president should make themselves known. They need to acknowledge their ambition publicly and then spend months or years raising money from the wealthiest people in the country. This way we know that their Presidency will not threaten people’s wealth. Candidates also have to gain the endorsement of the powerful members of their political parties so that no one in the political establishment will be threatened. And then come the campaigns and advertisements. Eventually, the people get to cast their votes. See how much more rational our modern procedure is from that used by Samuel?
Samuel’s Lot The first king of Israel was chosen by lot. It may interest you to know that the founders of the Moravian Church used this story in I Samuel to guide them as they made the radical and illegal decision to ordain their own priests and bishop in 1467. They chose three men they thought were capable of being priests and then used to lot to confirm their selection. The last time the lot was used in the Moravian Church was in the 1890s to select a bishop. Moravians no longer use the lot itself to choose leaders. We simply start voting for people without discussion of qualifications or experience. Supposedly this allows the Holy Spirit to guide the process, but typically it means that we choose older people who are well known and not controversial.
The way the process of the lot used in ancient Israel was a little different from the Moravian practice. There were two stones, the Urim and Thummin, one black and the other white, indicating “yes” and the other “no.” A question was asked by the priest who then chose a stone. The answer was believed to come from God. So, in the selection of Saul, they first went through the tribes until Benjamin got the “yes.” Then they went through the clans to find the clans. Finally the choice came down to individual names, and Saul son of Kish was chosen.
Read I Samuel 10:20-27 Since we have a few moments, I will read a little further in chapter 10.
There is some awkwardness in the story. Saul was not there when the lot chose him. We would assume that each man was brought forward as his name was tried before the lot, but Saul was not there. This has led many scholars to speculate that two versions of the election were combined. In any case, the LORD directs Samuel to Saul hiding among the baggage. It is not an auspicious beginning to a monarchy, but it does emphasize that the first king was chosen by God himself. Samuel seems to forget all of his reservations about the monarchy as he explodes with glee over the choice of Saul. Look at how tall he is! Samuel presents him as the kind of man who could lead a nation in a time of war, despite his lack of national political leadership. And the people ratify this choice by acclamation. Saul will be king!
Samuel then writes down all of the rights, duties, and responsibilities of the king and solemnly placed on the altar at Mizpah. It is quite likely that the warnings he gave the Israelites were included in this now lost book. The important thing is that from the beginning, the kings of Israel were informed that they were not above the law.