Friday of Week 1 of Ordinary time – First Reading

Commentary on 1 Samuel 8:4-7,10-22

Samuel – the democratic republican! We begin reading today about Samuel and his involvement with Saul and the institution of the monarchy in Israel.

The institution of the monarchy was a major turning point of Israel's political and religious history. The sanctuary of the ark of Shiloh had been destroyed and unity was in danger as the Philistine threat increased. A section of the people began asking for a king “such as other nations have'” but others held the opposite view that Yahweh, Israel's only lord, should be left to provide leaders as circumstances required, as he had done in the days of the Judges.

These two schools of thought find a voice in anti-royalist (ch. 8; 10:17-24; 12) and royalist (9:1-10:16; 11) versions of the institution of the monarchy, here placed side by side. The royalist view (which we will see tomorrow) will ultimately prevail, but Saul, the first king, is scarcely distinguishable from the judges who preceded him. The monarchy will only achieve its full development in David. He is one of the outstanding characters of the whole Bible and in him the religious and civil functions of the Israelite monarchy will be harmoniously combined. He will be able to combine his political responsibilities with his service of the Lord. However, none of his successors will achieve this ideal. David, and really David alone (in spite of his serious weaknesses), remains the model of the future King through whom God is to bring about the salvation of his people, namely the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed of the Lord.

As today’s reading opens we find the elders of the people approaching Samuel and telling him that, in view of his old age (and, it might be added, the corrupt behaviour of his sons) they should have a king. It soon becomes apparent, however, that the more basic reason for their request was a desire to be like the surrounding nations – to have a human king as a symbol of national power and unity who would lead them in battle and guarantee their security. As a loose conglomerate of tribes they would never be able to deal effectively with their enemies (who had kings). Israel had suffered a number of calamitous defeats at the hands of its old nemesis, the Philistines, and the people saw that what was needed was a powerful leader as a strong unifying and rallying point.

There were two reactions to this innovation of having a king – one against and one in favour. Some would say they were forgetting that they were not like other nations. By their desire to appoint a human king they were, in a way, setting aside their real Lord. Israel had always been a theocracy where only God was its King and Lord and the idea of a human king seemed almost blasphemous. On the other hand, there were those who, for political reasons and even for the people’s survival, emphasised the need for a single, strong ruler.

In today's reading we see the anti-royalist view, while tomorrow the royalist arguments will be put forward. The misgivings of the anti-royalists are seen in Samuel's displeasure at the people asking for a king. God, too, is not happy but tells Samuel to let the people have their way: "It is not you they reject, they are rejecting me as their king." The sin of Israel in requesting a king did not rest in any evil inherent in kingship itself, but rather in the kind of kingship the people envisioned and their reasons for requesting it.

Their desire was for a form of kingship that denied their covenant relationship with the Lord, who himself was pledged to be their saviour and deliverer. In requesting a king "like all other nations" they broke the covenant, rejected the Lord, who was their King and forgot his constant provision for their protection in the past.

In a rather sarcastic tone, Samuel proceeds to tell the people all the “advantages” that will accrue to them by having a king. His description reflects not so much what happened under Saul or David but in a later period, beginning with Solomon, and reflects the bitter experience of the writer’s own generation. Later on, we will see how terrible some of those kings really were.

Samuel warns them that having a king will reduce them to virtual slavery:
Their sons will become the king’s charioteers and minions
They will become ‘war fodder’ to fight his battles for him
They will become serfs on their own land
They will become weapon makers for the king’s armies
They will become labourers to provide his needs
He will commandeer their vineyards and olive groves and give them out to his favourite eunuchs and slaves
He will take over their best servants and all their herds for his own use.
He will tax them to the point of reducing them to slaves.

Then – and only then – will the people complain to God but it will be too late. They have made their own bed and will have to sleep in it. Only the king will enjoy rights; the people will have duties and obligations. In fact, the demands of the king would parallel all that Israel was expected to consecrate to the Lord as her Great King (persons, lands, crops, livestock) – even the whole population. But now it going to be given to a very fallible – and sometimes – wicked human being.

For now, the people will not listen to Samuel's arguments. They are determined to have a king like their neighbours who will lead them to war and fight their battles. And God said: "Let them have their way." Samuel is told to appoint someone as king and he tells the people to go back to their own cities and towns.

We, too, can be very insistent in asking God to give us something we feel we really need. Yet, when it comes we may bitterly regret the consequences. Sometimes what we take to be the answer to a prayer may only be the fruit of our own persistence. But, whatever happens, wherever our choices have led us, God is always there and it is always in our present situation, in the here-and-now, that we must learn to respond to his call. Even our mistakes can become moments of grace and enlightenment.

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