Tuesday, February 23, 2010

1 Samuel 8-15: Saul

I'm doing a bunch of chapters together so I can start to catch up to where I've read again.  But this whole passage is about Israel's first official king, Saul.

We start in chapter 8 with the people demanding a king.  See, Samuel's sons are almost as big of jerks as Eli's sons were - why is it impossible for a godly person to have godly children in this country? - and the people knew they were jerks, so they want a king "like the other nations" instead of another judge.  It really sounds like when kids ask their parents for some ridiculous new toy for no other reason than because "all the other kids have one."  I really wish Samuel had said "If all the other nations jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?"  Of course they'd probably say yes.

Surprisingly, God tells Samuel to listen to the people.  Actually it's not surprising.  Remember back in Deuteronomy when God gave them rules for their kings when they finally demanded one?  God knew this was going to happen, so at least He prepared for it.

So after lecturing the people and warning them about what a king is going to do, to which the people respond that they totally don't care, we transition to the man God has chosen to be king, only we don't know it yet.  His name is Saul, and his father's name is Kish, and he's lost his donkeys so Saul and his servant are traipsing all around the country to look for them - apparently for several days.  The servant says they should go ask Samuel where the donkeys are since he's a prophet - kind of like going to the mall psychic, I guess? so they do.

Then we find out that God has already told Samuel this was going to happen, and that Saul is the person he has chosen to be king.  So Samuel meets Saul, tells him the donkeys have already found their way back home, but invites him to stay and come to this party he's throwing, kind of hinting that he's about to become king.  Saul kind of goes, whoa man, I'm just a regular lowly guy, why are you talking like this?  Then Samuel sends him back home by a certain route, where he meets some prophets and starts prophesying because the Spirit of God comes on him.  After that he goes home.

Then Samuel calls all the people of Israel to Mizpah to publicly announce that Saul has been chosen king - only he can't find him, because he's hiding.  When Samuel finds him and finally gets him to stand up, Saul is a head taller than anybody in the assembly.  Now, something my pastor said once, is that Saul is the only Hebrew in the whole Bible who is described as "tall."  The people of other nations are generally described as tall, but Jews tended to be short (poor Zacchaeus must have been really short).  So when they asked for a king "like other nations," God gives them exactly what they want - he even looks like the other nations' kings.

Anyway, so at first some of the people aren't too keen on Saul being their king, but then Saul leads an army against the Ammonites and defeats them.  Then the people want to kill the guys who didn't want Saul to be king, but I love what Saul says in response - he says, "Not a man shall be put to death this day, for today the LORD has accomplished deliverance in Israel."  This is a far cry from Gideon, who went through two cities and tore them to pieces just because they wouldn't give him any food.

The picture I am getting of Saul so far is that he's kind of bashful, hiding by the dumpster so Samuel won't make him stand up in front of everybody, that he's got a good enough dose of humility to know that he's nothing particularly special to be chosen as king, and that he's not vengeful.  Sounds like a good guy so far.  But if you know anything about the Bible, you know that things are going to go downhill, and that makes me really sad because right now I like Saul.

Next, Samuel addresses Israel and very briefly rehashes their history from Moses through the judges to today, tells them again that they're being really stupid by demanding a king, but here he is anyway, and exhorts them to fear God and serve him, and then things will be okay.  But if they don't obey God, they and their king will be "swept away" - in other words, their king won't be able to save them from God's judgment.

Then Israel goes to war with the Philistines, and we see Saul's first mistake.  He's waiting around for Samuel to show up to offer a sacrifice, and Samuel is running a little late, so rather than waiting even an extra day or something, Saul goes ahead and makes the sacrifice himself, which apparently is a really big no-no.  I don't know what kind of offering it was so I don't know if there are some kinds that only priests can offer, or something like that, but when Samuel shows up he gets really ticked and says that for this mistake alone, his descendants are not going to be kings.  I don't know why that happened after only his first mistake; you'd think God would give him more chances.  But maybe since God didn't want Israel to have a king in the first place, the stakes have been raised.

Then we meet Saul's son Jonathan.  He's a pretty cool guy, eager to go the extra mile and kill a few extra Philistines, but it gets him in trouble because while he and his men are out killing Philistines, his father is commanding the people not to eat anything until they've defeated the Philistines on pain of death, which sounds like a really stupid battle strategy to me.  On the first day of volleyball practice in seventh grade, I passed out because the coach's assistant told me not to eat before practice, so I didn't.  Food is good for you.  So it keeps saying that the people are exhausted, because they haven't eaten, but Jonathan, who hasn't heard about this stupid order, eats some honey and gets a sugar rush.  So anyway, then Saul is asking God (good idea) whether they should go down and attack the Philistines by night, but God doesn't answer him, so he knows that somebody's broken his rule.  He finds out it's Jonathan and, very reluctantly, is about to kill him, but thankfully the people convince him not to.

Then Samuel tells Saul to go to war with the Amalekites and completely destroy them, like the people did to Jericho and some of the other cities when they were taking over the promised land, as judgment.  I wonder why the Amalekites got extra time?  Hmm.  Anyway, so they go out and defeat them, but rather than destroying everything and everyone, Saul takes the king alive and saves the best of the livestock and basically everything that's good, and only destroys the crummy stuff.  Samuel comes and gets really mad at Saul, and Saul tries to excuse himself by saying it's a sacrifice to God, and then by saying the people did it, not him, but finally he confesses that he has sinned and begs forgiveness.

It's at this point that it says God regrets making Saul king, and Samuel knows it, so after this day he doesn't see Saul again, and instead he goes home and mourns over Saul.  I think Samuel really liked Saul in spite of all his lecturing him and everything.  Sometimes people who love us are the worst lecturers, because they're just concerned about us.

I'm really sorry for Saul.  He started out so well, but his inability to follow directions really got him in trouble.  I guess if you're the king, you're taking the place of the judges - you're basically the guy standing between the people and God, except for the priests.  So it must be really important to be totally obedient to God when He specifically tells you to do something - I mean, it's important for everybody, but when you're in a leadership position it's even more important because your example alone can influence so many people for good or for bad.

One thing I don't really understand is where it says God regretted making Saul king.  Does that mean God thought He had made a mistake?  That he wished He had appointed somebody else?  Or just that He was sad?  We say that everything God does is perfect and He never makes mistakes, and the Bible says God never changes, but sometimes - especially here in the Old Testament - there are statements that seem to contradict it.  It reminds me of Genesis when it says God was sorry he had made humans.

So this story, like so many others, ends on a sad note.  Poor Saul, if he had just followed directions he would have seen his son become king, and his grandson, and so on down the line.  But don't worry, he'll cease to be a cause for pity soon enough.

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