1 Samuel 8 is a turning point in the history of Israel and also a train wreck of failure. This chapter fundamentally changes the nation of Israel, they go from a gathering of tribes with a version of a theocracy lead by divinely appointed judges to a monarchy. This changes not only the leadership structure of Israel but also the relationship between YHWH and the people. They are no longer lead by a prophet or judge who was a divinely chosen representative. They are now lead by a king who is leader by right of birth not divine appointment. While this is an important moment in the history of Israel it is also a story of the compounding of failure. There are three particular failures that occur in this story, two are Samuel’s and one is the people’s.
Before we talk about their failures I want to make a side note. We have a tendency to flatten characters in the Bible. A character becomes defined by one particular attribute, good or evil, faithful or wicked, and we read that attribute into all of their story. We think of David as being a bastion of virtue and faith and we gloss over the part where he rapes Bathsheba and murders her husband. The same happens to Samuel. The passage last week portrays him as someone who, from a young age, has YHWH’s favor and is a gifted prophet, leading the people in righteousness. Which is true he does that, but that is not the whole of his story. In reality that is only true for the first half of his story. Chapter 8 is a turning point of Israel but it is also a turning point for Samuel. From this chapter on he is no longer portrayed as a faithful servant of YHWH but instead as someone driven by ego. There is an arc to his character that should not be flattened to “righteous leader”.
The first failure of Samuel comes early in the story and really sets the tone for what follows. The chapter opens with the phrase “When Samuel became old”. The last time a phrase like this occurred was in 2:22 “Now Eli was very old.” Immediately following that proclamation of Eli’s age we are told that his sons are exceedingly wicked and that he is doing nothing to stop them or correct them. So when that designation is connected to Samuel it should make us nervous, and our nervousness is immediately justified. “When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel.” Perhaps you are wondering, what is so wrong with that? So he made his sons judges, so what? He’s getting old and probably needs the help. Here’s the problem, people never appointed other people as judges. In the long tradition of judges this did not happen. Only God appoints someone as a judge to lead Israel. People are selected by YHWH to carry out this particular role or prophetic leadership in Israel. It was simply not the way the process worked. Birth was not a substitute for a divine appointment. But then the problem gets compounded. We find out that Samuel has two sons, like Eli, and like Eli they are both wicked. Samuel’s sons are taking bribes and perverting justice. It is unclear whether or not Samuel knows what they are doing, but it is difficult to imagine that he doesn’t. Especially since it is widely enough known that the elders who come to him in the next part of the story know about their wickedness. At best Samuel is ignorant of their wickedness and at worst is complicit with their behavior. So the first failure of the story is Samuel’s appointment of his sons as judges despite their wickedness.
The main action of the story starts in v. 4. The elders of Israel come to Samuel and they have a new scheme. The last time the elders are mentioned in 1 Samuel was when they decided to take the ark of the covenant out to battle and it got captured. I read one commentator who said something like, “we hope at this point that they have come up with a better idea then their last, but it doesn’t seem likely.” The elders come to Samuel and very helpfully point out “you are old.” And because of his age and his son’s wickedness, the people want Samuel to appoint for them a king. They want a king over them for two reasons. The first reason they state up front in their first request, “to govern us, like the other nations.” They wanted a king to rule them so that they would be like the other nations. This is a failure to recognize, fundamentally, what Israel is, that is, the set apart and chosen people of YHWH. They simply are not like other nations and are not meant to be. They are supposed to be different. In fact, they are already have a king, YHWH, who governs them through the giving of the law. So as YHWH say in v. 7 “they have rejected me as being king over them.” This is a consistent theme of the story of Israel, their failure to recognize their set apartness as YHWH’s people. They want to worship a variety of gods like the other nations, and now they want a king like the other nations.
The second reason comes in their second speech to Samuel in v. 20 and it is so that the king will “go out before us and fight out battles.” Up to this point in the book of 1 Samuel the Israelites have been going back and forth with the Philistines. They have been fighting these battles trying to secure their place in the promised land and when Samuel was leading them they did well. But now it seems that his age has caused them concern so they want a king to lead them into battle. This too is a fundamental failure to understand the role YHWH plays in regards to Israel. This has always been true, when YHWH commands Israel to go out to battle they do not go alone, YHWH goes with them and fights the battles for them. They seem to have forgotten this, so they want a king who will fight for them, replacing YHWH. The people’s desire for a king has the side effect of replacing YHWH as the leader of Israel and as their warrior.
In the NLT the story ends with God making a clear command to give the people a king, and “Then Samuel agreed and sent the people home.” According to that it seems that Samuel agrees to give the people a king and he will not set out to him them a suitable king. The translation The Voice says, “So Samuel told the people of Israel to go back to their cities until he would call them together to anoint them a king.” That translation makes that interpretation explicit. There is just a small problem with that interpretation, namely none of that is in the hebrew. The story ends with the line “Samuel then said to the people of Israel, ‘Each of you return home.’” God tells Samuel to give the people a king and he tells them to go home. There is no hint that he was setting out to carry out that command. And the next story seems to imply that Samuel is doing nothing about finding a king for Israel. Samuel is at home and God has Saul show up on his doorstep. Samuel isn’t out looking for a suitable king, God throws Saul at him and says “make him king.” God clearly commanded Samuel what he was to do in response to the people request, twice, and instead Samuel does nothing.
It makes us wonder why Samuel, a devout and effective leader of Israel, would refuse to follow this command from YHWH. I think that the clue lies in v. 6. The narrator tells us that “the thing displeased Samuel when they said, ‘Give us a king to govern us’.” The narrator gives us a rare glimpse into the thinking of a character but it makes us wonder why is this thing evil to Samuel? What is his motivation for aversion to their request. Keith Bodner suggests that there are two possible motivations. First, the thing was evil to Samuel for theological reasons. He understood that Israel was a nation who already had a king in YHWH who the people sought to replace. They were essentially asking him to be complicit in their sinful request. While this motivation is possible, I do not think that it is the most likely. The second reason Bodner suggests is that Samuel’s disgust is of a personal motivation. The request for a king is a personal affront against Samuel. Peter Miscall similarly writes, “Samuel deeply resents the people’s demand that he exercise his authority to demote or even remove himself by appointing another leader, a king, especially one who will govern or judge the people as he has been doing.” To appoint a king would be to remove himself from leadership over Israel. And not only himself but also his sons. He had appointed his sons to succeed him as the leaders over Israel after him. He had set up his own dynasty, his own pseudo-monarchy in his own family, and now the elders were asking him for someone else. And Samuel responds by doing nothing. The second failure of Samuel is one of self-motivated inaction.
We have looked extensively at what the human characters are doing in the story, but I think it is also interesting to ask, albeity briefly, what is God doing in the story? The short answer, not much. At least not much explicitly. God speaks twice to Samuel, and never to the elders, and doesn’t really act in anyway, instead he simply speaks. Surely God is acting in the background but it is not made explicit in the story. God speaks and it is characterized by acquiescence to the demands of the elders. They have rejected him for a human king and that is what he is going to give them. It seems almost uncharacteristic of God to act in such a way. The people ask for something that is seemingly against his will and he gives them exactly what they ask for. But perhaps this is another one of the cases where God gives them over. He gives them over to something or someone.
What makes me think that is because this story was not a news report for those who were alive at the time it was happening. They did not immediately write it down and pass it around so that people would know, “Hey we are finally getting a king.” This story, like many others in the Old Testament, was written down and shared to a later audience, namely, the Israelites in the exile. This text within the context of the exile would show when their path toward the exile began. Their rejection of God in favor of a human king, led to their apostasy, which ultimately led to their destruction and enslavement in the exile. But within the economy of God we know that nothing is wasted. Keith Bodner writes, “God can take an unwise decision and transform it. For a community in exile, leadership decisions of the past clearly affect the fate of the nation, and so 1 Samuel 8 would have currency for a readership that has experienced the trauma of such events. …. Within the overall plan of the narrative, 1 Samuel 8 seems designed to present an opportunity to reflect soberly on kingship as a leadership paradigm on the eve of its installation.” 1 Samuel 8 answers in part the question of “How did we end up in the exile?” but it provides an opportunity to reflect on the decisions that led them there and what they are going to do moving forward. Bodner continues by quoting Robert Gordon, “For an institution which promised so much, the Israelite monarchy turned out to be a costly failure …. And yet, if the monarchy is a monument to human weakness, it is also a symbol of divine grace, for Israel may put her disobedience behind her and look confidently ahead if only she will maintain covenant obedience to her God.”
We know that God gives people over to the desires of their heart, even if they are not what God wants. As Wesleyans we believe in the freedom of the human will. That we each and collectively have the ability to make choices for ourselves. Our lives are not simply a series of preordained events over which we have no control. That means that we have the free choice to make both good and bad choices. Israel had the chance to make good and bad choices. God allows the freedom to choose to do wrong even though it is naturally not what he would have us do. Israel chose time and again to do things and to become a people that set them at odds with the people that God wanted them to be. But we also know that is not ever the end of the story. There is redemption for Israel if they learn from the mistakes of the past, repent, and return to their covenant with YHWH. This story was an opportunity for that reflection for the Israelites.
This story is a similar opportunity for us. This story invites us to reflect on the failures of our past and to learn from them. We know that God does not cause us to sin, nor is it his desire that we do so to learn a lesson, but yet each failure is an opportunity to learn and to better ourselves in relationship with God. I think it is also important to consider not only the ways that we, personally, have fallen short, but also how the church as a collective has failed. While the church is the body of Christ it is also made up of fickle, selfish, and sinful people, and has been party to some lamentable events. We fail individually as Samuel failed, but we also fail collectively as the Israelites failed. The church has at various times and places chosen power and prominence over the mission of the kingdom of God. Let us learn from that mistake and choose weakness over power if the cost is our soul.
As it was for the Israelites so it is for us, this story is not meant to force us to dwell unceasingly on our failures: to allow ourselves to become consumed with self-inflicted sorrow. Instead it allows us to choose to move forward as the covenant people of God, as the hands and feet of Christ in the world.