A few weeks ago I preached about Samuel and the people’s request for a king in 1 Samuel 8. The main point of that sermon was that the failure of the people allowed for reflection by the later generations so that they could learn from those mistakes. In the same way, we can reflect on our own failures and learn from them to draw closer to Christ. But that wasn’t the sermon I set out to write. I actually had another sermon about halfway written when I felt I was being led in a different direction. It wasn’t that the sermon I was writing was bad or heretical, it just wasn’t the message for that Sunday. So I erased it all and started again and ended up with the sermon I preached. But I think that there is some value in the sermon I had started writing, so I wanted to share some of those thoughts here.
You may or may not have picked up on this during the sermon a few weeks ago, but I am not very sympathetic to the character of Samuel. Many view him as being a wise leader of Israel and a pious judge and prophet whom YHWH blessed. And while he does those things, he does not necessarily remain a model of virtue for his whole life. Prior to ch. 8, he was an excellent judge of Israel, leading the people with righteousness. But the trouble is signalled with the opening verse of ch. 8, “When Samuel became old.” The same thing was said about Eli – Samuel’s predecessor – earlier in the book and it is immediately followed by his failure to correct the wickedness of his sons which leads to his downfall. When this proclamation is made about Samuel, it is followed by his failure to correct the wickedness of his sons and his failure to install a king over Israel, despite YHWH commanding him to do so. After this, we see Samuel manipulating Saul in various was so as to retain a measure of control over Israel (10:2ff). He humiliates Saul in front of the elders of Israel (12:13-15). And Samuel calls down a torrent of rain from heaven during the season of the harvest, likely destroying the crops (12:18). He then removes Saul as king over Israel. Samuel removes Saul as king over Israel because Saul grew impatient while waiting for Samuel to come to offer a sacrifice and instead offers the sacrifice himself (13:8-14). The problem is that David does the exact same thing and YHWH accepts the sacrifices (24:25). So it seems that Saul was not taking on a holy role that he was not fit for, but instead Samuel perceived Saul’s actions as a threat to his authority over Israel.
The problem with many interpretations on Samuel – and other characters in the Bible – is that they are flattened to one aspect of their character. They are sorted into categories of righteous and wicked and their whole story is read through that lens. I was reading some papers written by undergrad students in an Intro to the Old Testament course. One student tried to argue that Bathsheba was David’s reward for a faithful life. She was essentially saying that YHWH rewarded David by letting him rape a woman and murder her husband. The reason that I think she read the story this way, was because we always hear in church how great a person David was, how faithful and righteous he was. So it becomes impossible to not read those qualities into a story that is actually portraying the opposite. We force the text to fit into the categories that we have already created for the characters. This ultimately results in us idolizing characters that ought not to be idolized. We hold Samuel up as an example of righteousness and right leadership despite what occurs in ch. 8 and beyond.
Our practice of idolizing characters in the Bible functions as an analogy of what we too often do with people in our lives. We idolize people despite the fact that they too are broken and sinful. It makes me think of two examples from my own life, the first more recent but less traumatic. I have worked in restaurants for most of my working life prior to moving to Batavia and becoming a part of Arbor House. I started as a dishwasher and worked my way up to line cook, and eventually to head chef, which is unusual given my age at the time. Chef was a role that I was excited for even though I knew I was unprepared for it. But it was in a restaurant that I was familiar with (it was were I started as a dishwasher and learned to cook, but that is a whole other story) and there was a board president who had owned restaurants and was going to help me along the way. So I took the job with great expectations of working with this board president. In the end he was one of the worst bosses I have ever had, which is saying a lot given that I worked for a guy who was regularly high on cocaine during dinner service (again, a story for another time). I started off looking up to him for insight and advice and ended up hiding in the kitchen to try to avoid talking to him. He was condescending and rude to me and my employees; the latter upset me the most. We also had vastly different philosophies about the food that ought to be served at the restaurant. In the end I was fired, which I knew was coming; what surprised me was the ultimate cause. I stood up for one of my employees that the board president was humiliating in the middle of the dining room. I’m not too broken up about losing that job.
The second story that I think of is during my time at Roberts Wesleyan College. I was an undergrad student in the Religion and Philosophy department. My advisor was one of the Bible professors and I naturally got to know him quite well. As I sat in his classes I became enthralled with his ability to read, interpret, and teach the Old Testament. His knowledge of scripture was second to none. He was able to read directly from the Hebrew and the Greek in class, which is a truly rare feat. I took every class of his that I could and I started taking Hebrew, and later Greek, in the hope that I could one day read scripture like him. I saw him as everything I wanted to become. I wanted to follow in his teaching style and his interpretive ability.
I took a class with this professor on the book of Ecclesiastes, one of my favorite books in the Bible being taught by my favorite professor, it seemed like the perfect class. The class was insightful and fun. There were four students in the class (the upper level religion classes wound up being quite small) and so it was intimate. We were able ask questions and participate in discussion much easier than if we were in a larger setting. As we came to the final weeks of the semester the class decided to meet at a nearby diner for dinner. We talked about various different topics and eventually found our way to the topic of the relationship between the church and the LGBT community (this was a topic we were discussing in another class). I said that the church needs to be open to conversations with the LGBT community as well as other faith groups, so that we can learn from one another and work towards goals that we hold in common. The professor was sitting directly across the booth from me. He looked me in the eye, pointed his finger at me and said, “You will kill the church.” In that moment the veneer of idolizing cracked and I saw clearly that he and I are on two vastly different paths. Over the next year he became more and more imbedded in fundamentalism, condemning the LGBT community and showing overt disdain for women in leadership in the Church. I could not and would not ever follow him there. And so it brought on this moment of crisis for me, there was this person that I had idolized, whom I had looked up to as a role model, who wanted to be known for his positions on topics that I no longer agreed with. I felt betrayed and like a ship hopelessly adrift. In the end, I have come to a place where I respect his scholarly ability, his knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, but I also fundamentally disagree with most of the positions he takes regarding the church and social and theological issues.
It took me some time before I felt confident in who I was again and where I was going. It took me some time before I felt that his opinion no longer held any sway over me. I recognized that it was unhealthy to have unquestioning devotion to another person. There were other people that I could look up to as role models, but this was a reminder to never idolize them. There are people in our lives that we look up to as leaders and role models and that is a good thing, but it becomes unhealthy when it crosses over into idolatry.
In our interpretations of the bible we sometimes overlook the glaring flaws of the characters because we have already determined the nature of their character. We excuse the actions of characters like Samuel because we have already decided that he is a righteous person, even though this leads us to an unfaithful interpretation of the text. In the same way we become enamored with a person in our lives and we begin to idolize them. We overlook the flaws they may have and we allow them to have an unhealthy amount of control over our lives.