April 09, 2008

1 Sam 9-12: So far, so good

(Today's passage covers Saul's selection as king, his rescue of the city of Jabesh Gilead, and Samuel's farewell speech.)

We've known for some time that the Israelites have wanted a king, so that the terrors of the era of Judges could be put to an end. Also, so that the Israelites could be a nation like any other, and thus maybe avoid being conquered every twenty years or so. Samuel, the prophet chosen by God, finally agrees to their pleading, despite telling them repeatedly that it's a really dumb idea.

The man he chooses is named Saul, a Benjaminite from a good family fallen on hard times. We first meet Saul as, accompanied by his trusty servant, he hunts for his father's lost donkeys. They're conscientious, searching most of the cities of Benjamin, before deciding that the hunt is in vain and they should probably head back before Saul's father starts bemoaning him instead of the donkeys. (1 Sam. 9:1-5)

However, just before turning back, they decide to consult Samuel, the man of God, to see if maybe he has any insights as to the location of the lost donkeys. In fact, Samuel is waiting for them, having been alerted to his presence by God the day before. When Saul comes up to give his meagre gift (1/4 shekel of silver, or about 1/10 oz), Samuel invites him to eat at his own table, gives him the best spot and the best food. Saul is overwhelmed: "Am I not a Benjamite, of the smallest of the tribes of Israel? And my family the least of all the families of the tribe of Benjamine? Wherefore then speakest thou so to me?" (1 Sam. 9:21, KJV)

Samuel pours anointing oil on Saul's head, gives him a few signs that all come true, and the deal is as good as done. However, when Samuel goes to officially choose the king in front of the whole congregation, Saul -- who should be easily visible, being a head and shoulders taller than everyone else -- is nowhere to be found. He's hiding with the baggage, perhaps because he doesn't want the burden of responsibility. (1 Sam 10:17-27)

Once confirmed, though, Saul proves himself a competent warlord. When the Ammonites besiege the city of Jabesh Gilead (we might remember them as the instigators of the Israelite civil war from the end of Judges), and men of Jabesh ask for a truce. Nahash, leader of the Ammonites, agrees to this on the condition that he can gouge out the eyes of every man of Jabesh. Jabesh, rightfully worried, calls to Saul, and Saul calls to Israel, amasses a 300,000-man army, and slaughters the Ammonites for most of a morning. (1 Sam. 11:1-11)

At this point, Saul's followers want to kill all those nay-sayers who didn't want him as king. Saul, though, commands that no one will be killed.

So far, Saul is everything we would like in a king: conscientious, humble, lawful. He's a worthy war-leader but also merciful to those people who may have criticized him. He's also very tall, which never hurts. In fact, at least in these early days, it's easy to see why Samuel (or God, depending on how you look at it) chose him as king.

It's just too bad his behaviour immediately starts to go downhill from this point forward.

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