Monday, June 02, 2008

God the Joker: 1 Samuel 9-10

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary sponsored by the Church of the Orange Sky.

Okay, I take it back. God wasn't bargaining completely in good faith. He personally directs Samuel in locating a complete bumbling idiot to become king of Israel.

The story of future King Saul gets off to a particularly ignoble beginning: Saul the Benjamite is off looking for some lost donkeys which belong to his father. On the advice of one of his servants, he goes to a prophet for advice, and of course the prophet turns out to be Samuel. This ridiculous notion of prophets as finding aids, which verse 9:9 seems to imply was common in ancient Israel, does a great disservice to the title "prophet" as it's later applied to the writers of the later books of the Old Testament. "Find my donkey" was apparently the ancient Near Eastern equivalent of "God, find my keys," and naturally prophets were available for this, just as direct prayer to God is available for much the same purpose today. Of course Samuel is God's prophet, so the donkeys are found.

Samuel, thanks to God, is expecting Saul, and promptly invites him into the dining hall for a great feast. The next day he sends Saul on a bizarre, intricately detailed treasure hunt involving Rachel's tomb at Zelzah, the great tree of Tabor, three goats, three loaves of bread, some winekins, and the Philistine outpost at Gibeah. Saul follows the instructions and, as his reward, gets to spend some time delivering prophecies at Gilgal.

In the meantime, Samuel summons all the tribes to meet at Benjamin, where he brings forward the tribe, then the clans, then the family of Saul. Saul, of course, has chickened out, being the dubious and incomptent leadership candidate that he is, and Samuel has to send men to find him "hiding among the baggage."

Once he's been found, Samuel proudly declares to the people, "Do you see the man the Lord has chosen? There is no one like him among all the people." This might be supposed to be a dramatic moment, although it really seems more sarcastic than anything. Indeed, is there no one so unqualified for kingship "among all the people"? Indeed, the people who know Saul best - the men of his hometown, Gibeah - mutter among themselves that "this fellow" won't able to "save us."