Tuesday of Week 2 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on 1 Samuel 16:1-13

With Saul rejected by God as king, Samuel is now told to look for a successor, whom God has already chosen. The episode, as described here, seems to come from the prophetic tradition and is not related to the later narrative in which David is anointed as king at Hebron by the men of Judah (2 Sam 2:4) and again by the elders of Israel (2 Sam 5:3), where there is no mention of the anointing described in today’s reading. In fact, in the next chapter (1 Sam 17:28), Eliab, David’s eldest brother, speaks to him as if he were still just a shepherd boy who had no place being with the Israelite army.

The reading today opens with the Lord scolding Samuel for grieving over Saul’s rejection as king. Instead he is sent to Jesse, the father of a large family of sons in Bethlehem. At first, Samuel is afraid to go because Saul may hear of it and kill Samuel out of anger and jealousy. The road from Ramah (where Samuel was) to Bethlehem passed through Gibeah, the region of Saul. Saul already knew that the Lord had chosen someone to replace him as king, and Samuel was afraid that jealousy would incite Saul to violence. Later incidents would confirm that Samuel’s fears were well-founded. So Samuel is told by God to tell Saul he is going to sacrifice a heifer to the Lord – which in fact he does. It was the truth, but not the whole truth.

When Samuel arrived in Bethlehem, he was met by the elders who asked if the prophet’s visit was a peaceful one. Samuel simply replied that he had come to offer a sacrifice to the Lord. Again, the truth, but not the whole truth about the real purpose of his visit. He orders them to make themselves ceremonially clean for the sacrifice by washing and putting on clean clothes, as required by the law.

Jesse and his family are also invited to the sacrifice during which Samuel is to choose the one who is to be anointed king. Samuel at first presumes that Eliab, the eldest son, is the obvious candidate because his appearance and height seem to indicate he is the one. These were the qualities which had been a factor in Saul’s being chosen earlier.

But the Lord tells Samuel he is not to judge by external appearances. The Lord is concerned more with a person’s inner disposition and character:

…the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.

Eliab, then, is not the one.

The second son, Abinadab, and then the third, Shammah, come forward but are also turned down. After seven sons had been presented and passed over, Samuel asks if there are any others.

Jesse says there is still one more, who was not present. He was away in the fields taking care of sheep. This was David. As we saw earlier, his role as one taking care of sheep is contrasted with Saul, who was earlier pictured searching after wandering and disobedient donkeys. And, of course, the image of the shepherd is one that belongs to God. It is fitting that the king of his people will also be a shepherd (and we still call those who serve the community of the church ‘pastors’, i.e. shepherds).

Samuel says that the sacrificial meal cannot proceed until the boy is brought in from the fields. David:

…was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome.

He is the one that God has chosen:

The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him, for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers…

This small circle of witnesses to David’s anointing assured its confidentiality, but also would provide ample testimony for the future that David had been anointed by Samuel and that he was not merely a usurper of Saul’s office.

From that day on:

…the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David…

The spirit of God possesses David without any external manifestation and in close association with the anointing – this is the grace bestowed on one consecrated. The name ‘David’ is an ancient semitic word for ‘commander’, ‘military leader’.

David will become one of the outstanding and most human characters of the Old Testament, as both sinner and saint. In a very special way, he will be the ancestor, through Joseph, of Jesus. Jesus is the “root of Jesse” who comes from Bethlehem, the “city of David”, and it is in the royal city of his ancestor that he will be born.

A reading like this is an opportunity for us to reflect on our own vocation, our being chosen by God for a special task. And we may well wonder, why God has chosen us rather than others whom we might regard as far more qualified to do the work he has given us to do.

And within the vocation or way of life in which we already find ourselves, we can still ask to what, in our present circumstances, God is further calling us or whether he may even be calling us to serve him in a different direction altogether. Let us listen to his call and ask him for the strength and courage to say ‘Yes’.

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