Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, April 15, 2017

BIBLE: 1 Samuel (11-20)

In many ways modern Americans can understand the book of Samuel.  These characters have many of the same concerns we do.  They want good jobs that pay well and provide higher social status.  They want what’s best for their children.  They worry that their government is not doing enough, or it’s doing too much.  They worry about going to war with hostile foreign nations.  These worries are things we can understand.  This is the kind of world we can understand because it’s a world much like our own.  But there are many things in 1 Samuel we can’t understand.  For example, in chapter 11 Nahash the Ammonite comes up and encamps against Israelites living in a town called Jabesh.  The Jabeshites are afraid of the Ammonites so they say “make a covenant with us, and we will serve thee.”  Making a peace treaty isn’t unusual, even in today’s world.  But in today’s world nations don’t make peace treaties by agreeing to “serve” other nations.  It was much worse than that in the Middle East around 1000 B.C.  Here was the response to the Jabeshite request for a peace treaty.  “Nahash the Ammonite answered them, On this condition will I make a covenant with you, that I may thrust out all your right eyes, and lay it for a reproach upon all Israel.”  The United Nations would not approve such a treaty and the modern world wouldn’t stand for it.  Some other country or Jabesh’s coalition allies would intervene.  But in that day there was no U.N. or allied coalitions.  There were only fellow Israelites to call upon for help.  If that failed, well, too bad, you were on your own.  This is one of the reasons the Israelites demanded a king from Samuel.  Having a king would centralize political and military power.  Centralized power would put Israel on a more competitive standing with the surrounding peoples.  Saul rallies the rest of Israel to come to the aid of Jabesh.  During this period Israel seems to have been a loose coalition of tribes, something along the lines of the early American Articles of Confederation.  The tribes were encouraged, but not compelled, to help their fellow citizens.  Saul warned of retaliation against those tribes which didn’t help fight against the Ammonites.  It worked.  “Saul put the people in three companies; and they came into the midst of the host in the morning watch, and slew the Ammonites… And all the people went to Gilgal; and there they made Saul king before the Lord in Gilgal.”

Saul seems like a good choice for a king.  He’s tall, strong, and handsome.  He’s also charismatic and has already shown he’s a good military commander.  Samuel gives the Israelites the king they asked for.  He also gives them a short history lesson about who they are, where they came from, and why they’re living where they are now.  But even though Saul looks like a king, he doesn’t always act like one.  He makes some serious mistakes that show his lack of leadership.  First he blurs the line between his own duties as king and Samuel’s duties as priest.  When Samuel gets delayed in coming before one crucial battle, Saul goes ahead and performs the sacrifice to the Lord himself.  That’s a serious mistake.  It’s Samuel’s place to make the sacrifice, not Saul’s.  Next he makes a serious blunder in military strategy in the war with the Philistines.  In chapter 14 it says “the men of Israel were distressed that day: for Saul had adjured the people, saying, Cursed by the man that eateth any food until evening, that I may be avenged on my enemies.  So none of the people tasted any food.”  When Saul says “that I may be avenged on my enemies” he’s putting his own interest ahead of the interest of his troops.  They won the battle but even Saul’s inexperienced son Jonathan could see “How much more, if haply the people had eaten freely today of the spoil of their enemies which they found?  For had there not been now a much greater slaughter among the Philistines?”  Saul looked like a king but didn’t have the qualities to become a good one.  A boy tending sheep would be Israel’s next king.  His name was David.  The rest of the story describes King David’s long and rocky road to the throne.


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