Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Posts tagged “monarchy

Of God, Men, and Kings


 

[Errata: Originally I confused Samuel’s sons with Eli’s. The manuscript is corrected below.]

(Preached at the Schooler Institute on Preaching at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio)

Let us pray:

ברוכה את יה אלהינו לב העלם אשר שמה לב עלינו ושומעת קול לבינו

רחמי עלינו וישמע קול דממה דקה

Blessed are You, Yah our God, Heart of the Universe, who attends to us and hears the voice of our hearts; mother-love us and make audible the soft, still voice. Amen.

James Lewis Icons, with permission

“Give us a king!”
“Give us a man-king!
“Give us a man!”
“Give us a man-king to rule over us.”

When Shmuel, Samuel, reached a certain point in years, the point when everyone agrees you’re old, but just short of too old, when Shmuel, Samuel, became old, he appointed his sons as judges, rulers, governors, all-but-kings without crowns. I have to stop here and repeat that Samuel appointed his sons, not God. Every judge in the book of Judges, and Moses before them, was appointed by God. But Samuel, in a fit of nepotism, appointed his own children to an office for which they were neither qualified nor equipped. Can you imagine a leader entrusted with the security and wellbeing of a people handing over critical jobs at the uppermost levels of governance to their own spawn?

Eli’s boys, unnamed in the tex couldn’t do the job. Their sins were spelled out in the tex. They were at the southernmost region of Eli and Samuel’s territory, perhaps thinking they were too far away for their father to know what they were doing in an age without social media. But the narrator knows, the people know, and surely Eli knows that his boys are robbing the house of God blind. They are taking from the people’s offerings what they want before it can even be offered to God. But more importantly, this passage (1 Samuel 2:22) reveals that Eli’s sons were guilty of sexual misconduct with the women who ministered at the sanctuary. In fact the lack of the preposition in Hebrew–they “lay” the women, not “lay with”–indicates rape and not consent even in the world of the text. In our world, from our context we see women clergy who said #metoo passed over for promotion for men who lacked the character or integrity called for but who had connections.

I mean, we’ve already had one female judge. Just because Deborah was excellent doesn’t mean there’s any reason to take a chance on another woman. We’ve already had one non-white-male president. Just because Barack was excellent—although I have some serious critiques–doesn’t mean there’s any reason to take a chance on another non-white-male president. Meanwhile, Samuel was sitting in Deborah’s seat of judgment at Ramah. In my sanctified imagination I hear folk saying Deborah and her chief goon Jael had a way of dealing with rapists. Ask Sisera’s mama who’s still waiting for her boy to come home.

I’m trying to get to the text but a text without a context is a pretext. Please don’t miss that Avi and Joe were fired for messing with people’s money. No one says anything about Eli’s sons messing with women’s bodies. When the narrator mentions their transgressions in verse 3, financial crimes and their sheer and utter failure to do their job as judges—to do justice—are the charges. Eli’s sons disappear but not their record of sexual assault was well documented with all of the receipts on display. But suddenly, their time was up. None of them, Eli’s sons or Samuel’s sons would get that sweet government job after all.

The people got together and voted. Understand that while we have sanctified voting, in the ancient Israelite context it was a rebellious, even treasonous, act against God. But treason seems to be all the rage these days. Be very clear that your biblical authors and editors would consider democracy a godless system. So we can’t just read Israelite texts about governance into and onto our world without any nuance. Ironically, our own ancestral overthrow of our anointed sovereign would have also been considered treasonous and rebellious, because contexts change, in and out of the bible, and what was once considered a rejection of God later became a messianic construct. Nevertheless, our American ancestors thought that voting for a leader was a good idea though they didn’t think that everyone should vote, and some still don’t think some of us should be able to vote right now.

After throwing Samuel’s age in his face and charging his sons with bribery and incompetence but giving them a pass on rape, the people ask for a human-sovereign to do what Samuel has been doing–judging, ruling, governing–but this time with the full regalia of monarchy. They don’t ask for anyone with any better morals, training, preparation, or calling than his boys. They say:

“Give us a king!”
“Give us a man-king!
“Give us a man!”
“Give us a man-king to rule over us.”

They are looking not just to replace his kleptocratic sexual assailant sons; they are looking to replace him too. Samuel, you’re fired.

The people have been watching Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and they want what they see. They want the pageantry of the one percent. They want a privileged, entitled man with no experience or preparation to hold the highest office in the land. They just want to be like the other nations, the heathen nations. I’m using that word deliberately because of how they in their ethnocentrism characterized everyone else who didn’t share their beliefs, practices, and culture as other, yet they emulate them in every way. Reminds me of the folk who would rather be poor and white than rich and black but who speak and sing in our vernacular—or try—dance to our music—or try—wear our fashion, copy our hairstyles and then spew anti-black bile like the white nationalist fool who was looking for material on dreadlocking his hair that didn’t have references on Rastas and all that n-word ish. They seem to think that the wealth and status of a privileged moneyed leader will somehow trickle down to them. That such a man–and they wanted a man–such a man would be competent to or even care to raise their status.

And they want Samuel as prophet and pastor to bless that mess. Samuel, the people’s pastor, heir to the throne of Deborah and Moses that only those three fully occupied with the dual callings of prophet and judge, Samuel went to his God. I like Samuel. His relationship with God is instructive. I believe that Samuel tells God his whole mind. At least that is how I understand the text’s omission of the words of his first prayer. I believe like many of us Samuel says some things in that prayer that would burn the ears and shock the souls of those who think preachers shouldn’t cuss. After he prays whatever he prays God says give them what they want. God also tells Samuel some of what she is feeling and doesn’t hold back. In this three-way breakup God says: It’s not you; it’s me. But it’s really them. This is how they do. Give them what they want but let them know what this will cost them.

Tell them what they’re buying and how they will pay for it. And Samuel told them: When you choose a man based on plutocratic standards—Give us a man-king to rule us like the heathen nations with their golden thrones and palaces—when you choose a leader out of covetousness because you really want to see yourself reflected in his gold painted shine, not only will you not benefit from his expanded wealth and privilege but you will pay dearly in the currency that matters most to you.

You say, “Give!” But he will take.
Your sons he will take.
Your daughters he will take.
Your fields and vineyards and olive orchards, he will take.
Your grain and your vineyards he will take.

Your male slaves and your female slaves he will take. Imma come back to the social inequity and oppression that Samuel lets go unchallenged because I do not accept the enslavement of human persons as a matter of course in any world at any time.

He will take your cattle and donkeys.

He will take your children and chew them up and spit them out of the engines of his warfare. He will spill the blood of their precious lives in his self-aggrandizing military provocations. He will use them up as low-wage workers with no benefits to enrich himself his hangers-on. But he has special plans for your daughters. On the surface of the text it looks like he wants professional skilled women to work in his enterprises. But we know no amount of professional acumen will protect women and girls from a disproportionate amount of sexual harassment and assault by those whose power, privilege, and position lead them to think they can grab whatever they want by whatever they want to do whatever they want to whomever they want.

He will take your income and the assets for which you have worked so hard. And those of you who are trying to live like kings, exploiting other people; he will take the people you exploit from you to exploit for his own needs. And then after all of that, he will use your flocks to tithe on the wealth he has taken from you. He will pay his taxes with your money. But at least he’s paying taxes. When he is through with you all, you will be even more broke than you are now. And you will be enslaved by the system you coveted.

He will take you for a ride and take you to the cleaners and take you to places you never imagined existed and leave you broken and battered, begging by the side of the road while his chariot-cade passes by. You will see yourselves reflected in the shine on his seal of office and cry out: My God, what have we done?

There is another context for this text: aftermath. The crowd of people who thought when they got a plutocrat who shared their values thought they would ride the gold gravy train will find out what will trickle down on them isn’t gold. You all will cry out on that day in the face of your human-sovereign, whom you have chosen for yourselves; and God Whose Name is Holy will not answer you all on that day.

They wound up with a leader who lacked the mental stability for the job. But beware of forcing the text to exactly parallel our world. Saul’s story is a tragic one. He and all of the women in his life are broken by David, and arguably by God who doesn’t accept Saul’s repentance but will accept David’s over and over and over again. But that is another sermon. Samuel’s opposition to the monarchy is preserved because it is entangled with the story of David, the monarch who will be all but deified.

There is more to take away from this passage than the hubris firing God then demanding she find a lesser qualified man to do a pale imitation of her job. Monarchy comes with a price. It is an expensive proposition; it will cost them more than they know. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Lord Acton was speaking of the church when he penned those famous words. The monarchy was already a failed experiment in Israel when they made their request. In the book of Judges one of Gideon’s seventy children, Avimelek, the one he seems to have rejected and not provided with an inheritance, kills all of his siblings (but one who escaped) and reigns in Israel for three years. He, not Saul, is the first king in Israel. He was eventually mortally wounded by a woman while besieging her town and killed himself so no one would say a woman killed him in Judges 9.

Traditional understandings of this text say what is at stake is what happens when you consider anyone other than God your king. That sounds real good to Americans and other post-colonial subjects who threw off the shackles of monarchy long ago. That is certainly Samuel’s perspective. The Deuteronomist will counter by constructing David as the first messiah-king. And if you want to know how that turned out ask Bathsheba, and Rizpah, and, Tamar and all the unnamed women, children, and men David slaughtered while thugging for hire on behalf of his Philistine lord.

Perhaps the most overlooked lesson in this text is that God is not a king. At best, our ancestors simply lacked the imagination and language to describe God other than in human terms. At worst, by giving God a title they reserved for themselves, human men gave voice to their secret wish to be idolized. In the ancient Afro-Asian context in which this narrative is set, a king is a warlord who batters his opponent to submission. Kings didn’t lead from the back like presidents and generals in secret bunkers and protected command and control centers. They led in the slaughter, hacking and clubbing their enemies to death, treading through the brains and blood of the slaughtered, building monuments out of their bones. That is not God. God is not a king. Kings schemed against their fellow–and occasional sister–kings; they stole each other’s land, enslaved each other’s people, raped each other’s daughters and sons. That is not God. God is not a king.

God transcends all of our language, petty ambitions, and self-aggrandizing titles. We need new language for God that is not rooted in vengeance and violence, submission and slaughter, or domination and damnation. We need to employ a little sanctified imagination and call God by names that don’t bring her down to our level. But all we have is these human tongues and colonized imaginations. Drawing on the spirit of my ancestors I will say God is a mother to the motherless and a father to the fatherless. God is a doctor in the sickroom and a lawyer in the courtroom. God is the one who brings us to life, calls us to freedom, and moves between us with love.

God is:

Sovereign, Savior and Shelter;
Author, Word and Translator;
Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer and Life-Giver;
Holy Incarnate Majesty, Holy Incarnate Word, Holy Abiding Spirit;
Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer;
The God of Isaiah, the God of Jesus and our God;
Parent, Partner, and Friend.

God is:

shepherd, banner, rock, fortress, deliverer,
peace, light, salvation, 
strength and shield, 
devouring fire,
abiding presence.

God is twelve and seven and three and one and legion. God is. And God is available to any and everyone whether warrior, prophet, king, laborer, immigrant, transchild, felon, politicion, trafficked woman, president, pastor, professor or seminarian, patriarchal misogynist or white supremacist, once we understand that the titles with which we have crowned ourselves and in which we name God in our image become idols. And one day if we are not careful, God will leave us to them.

You all will cry out on that day in the face of your human-sovereign, whom you have chosen for yourselves; and God Whose Name is Holy will not answer you all on that day.

May God who is Majesty, Mercy, and Mystery speak words of life, love, and liberation through these words. Amen.

1 Samuel 8:4 All the elders of Israel gathered themselves together and came to Samuel yonder at Ramah, 5 and they said to him, “You—you are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now then, set up for us a human-sovereign to judge us, like all the heathen nations.” 6 But the thing was evil in Samuel’s sight when they said, “Give us a human-sovereign to judge us.” Then Samuel prayed to the Holy One of Old.

7 And the Holy One said to Samuel, “Hearken to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for it is not you they have rejected, but it is me they have rejected from being sovereign over them. 8 Like everything else they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this very day, forsaking me and serving other gods; they are doing the same to you. 9 Now then, hearken to their voice; but—you shall testify against them, and show them the judgment of the human-sovereign who shall reign over them.”

10 So Samuel relayed all the words of the Holy One to the people who were asking him for a human-sovereign. 11 Samuel said, “This will be the judgment of the human-sovereign who will reign over you: your sons he will take and set them aside for himself in his chariots and in his cavalry, and to run before his chariots; 12 and he will set aside for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his plowing and to reap his reaping, and to make his furnishings of war and the furnishings of his chariots. 13 Your daughters he will take to be apothecaries and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards, he will take and give to his servants. 15 One-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards he will take and give to his eunuchs and his slaves. 16 Your male slaves and your female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, he will take and put them to his work. 17 Your flocks he will tithe…and you, you shall be his slaves. 18 And you all will cry out on that day in the face of your human-sovereign, whom you have chosen for yourselves; and God Whose Name is Holy will not answer you all on that day.”


If We Can’t See God Then Give Us a King: Incarnational Monarchy

A Bejeweled Crown

It’s not you it’s me. That’s the stereotypical and clichéd way to break up with someone. But what happens in the book of Samuel (and it’s a single book in Hebrew) is even tackier: The one partner (Israel) won’t talk to the other partner (God) and tells a third party (Samuel) that it’s time to redefine their relationship. Awkward!

But they’re also dissing Samuel – we wouldn’t need a king if you had done a better job raising your boys… Verse 5: You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways… Ouch! Samuel’s sons were greedy and corrupt. Listen to the beginning of chapter 18 excluded from our lectionary:

1Samuel 8:1 When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. 2 The name of his firstborn son was Yo’el, and the name of his second, Aviyah; they were judges in Be’er-sheba. 3 Yet his sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice. 

The people had already been through this with Eli, Samuel’s mentor and predecessor. He was a good judge, but his sons were thieves – they stole the peoples’ offerings, God’s offerings, right out of the collection plates and they forced the women who ministered at the sanctuary to sleep with them, clergy misconduct in every way. Hannah gave her firstborn son Samuel to God and God gave him to Eli to be his replacement, but there were no fine young men or women waiting in the wings this time around. Just the thought of going through that again must have been traumatic.

But what I can’t figure for the life of me is why the Israelites thought a monarch would be any better. What guarantee would they have that the king’s sons wouldn’t be despots or tyrants? None! That's exactly what happened and the monarchy of Israel was broken into two shrinking pieces from which it never recovered, just as the gospel says, a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. The request was illogical and irrational. It wasn’t about Samuel; he was just the excuse. It was peer pressure on an epic, national and international scale. We want a king like everybody else. We want to be like the modern Iron Age nations, on the cutting edge.

Now this is a tricky text for Americans because we’re rather smug in our rejection of monarchy, particularly here in Philadelphia, the cradle of American liberty. But the aftermath of this text, which we often forget, is that God sanctifies monarchy –the Israelite monarchy and perhaps those that extend from it – making our own patriotic rebellion scripturally questionable. This text is also difficult to translate into our contemporary reality. If we agree that neither God nor Samuel thought that the monarchy was a good idea but held their collective noses and let their spoiled brats have what they thought they wanted to teach them a lesson, then what was the preferred alternative? Theocracy? Theocracy doesn’t have a positive track record in our world outside of the scriptures. It doesn’t work terribly well in the scriptures. We know that theocracies are dangerous.

Moses was arguably the first theocratic ruler in Israel’s history. And yet, in spite of the very real, visible presence of God in the pillars of cloud, smoke and fire, miraculous provision of manna and quail, earthshaking miracles, sand, serpents, plagues and other punishments, there were constant complaints, rebellions and more than one attempted coup. At more than one point God had enough, decided to kill everybody and start all over again with new people – as though they would be more faithful the next time around than the old people – and Moses had to talk God out of killing rages repeatedly, interceding with incense, placing his own body between the wrath of God and the dying.

Then came the judges. They were a mixed bunch at best. The judges were warlords and whoremongers, prophets and priests; one sacrificed his own daughter, slaughtering her like an animal in the name of God, a human sacrifice. And they had a bad habit of appointing their own questionable offspring after them. They may not have called themselves kings, queens or monarchs, but they sure acted like them – right down to the thrones of Moses, Deborah, Eli and Samuel.

So God tells Samuel, “it’s not you; it’s me,” that the people are really rejecting God in v 7:  “Obey the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from reigning over them.

But on the other hand, it is about you too in v 8: Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, abandoning me and serving other gods, so too they are doing to you.

As a priest, I appreciate that God got that Samuel was taking this personally and ministered to him: they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me… It’s not you; it’s me. God gives Samuel what he needs, divine comfort. And God gives the people what they say they need, a king. But that wouldn’t be enough. Because kings are not gods. They do terrible things, as bad as any of the transgressions of the sons of Eli and Samuel. 

The monarchy was already a failed experiment in Israel when they made their request. In the book of Judges one of Gideon’s seventy children, Avimelek, the one he seems to have rejected and not provided with an inheritance, kills all of his siblings (but one who escaped) and reigns in Israel for three years. He, not Saul, is the first king in Israel. He was eventually mortally wounded by woman while besieging her town and killed himself so no one would say a woman killed him in Judges 9. 

So the Israelites knew that monarchy was an imperfect solution. They also had the example of all the queens, kings, pharaohs, princes, and other sovereigns around them. The Middle Bronze and Iron Ages weren’t exactly known for their advances in human and civil rights. So why were they so desperate for a monarch in spite of all of the evidence around them? Because of what a monarch represented in their world, what I’ll call representational incarnation, the woman or man on the throne was the beloved of God, sometimes child, sometimes spouse, and God was with her or him in a particular, intimate way and that person was the visible presence of God in their midst. 

They just wanted to be able to see and touch God. At any cost. Monarchy comes with a price. It is an expensive proposition; it will cost them more than they know. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Lord Acton was speaking of the church when he penned those famous words. They certainly apply to the monarchy of which Israel dreamed. So Samuel warned them, “this is what a king will do, he will take….” in vv 11-17:

he will take your sons… he will take your daughters… he will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards… he will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards…  he will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys… he will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall all be his slaves.

And the people said, “We don’t care!” Verse 19: 

No! We are determined to have a monarch over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our monarch may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.

Perhaps they thought God would still be on their side and fight their battles through this king they demanded – which is how it eventually worked out, for a while. Perhaps they felt entitled to divine protection. Perhaps they weren’t faithless. But perhaps – and this is what I really think – perhaps they were just being human, craving institutional structures and hierarchy as bulwarks against the chaos of their world and a monarch, a king, as a tangible symbol of God’s presence with them. That’s why I call it representational incarnation.

As is so often the case, the symbol is more important than the reality. We want to see someone fighting on our side. We don’t want to have to imagine an invisible God or trust that God is really here with us or have faith in that which we cannot see with our own eyes or hear with our own ears or touch with our own hands – one could touch a king in certain circumstances, circumspectly. We want a king, even if he is a puppet. 

I don’t blame them. I understand them. They were not the generation who had seen the power of God in the deliverance of the Exodus, plagues of Egypt and miracles in the wilderness. Those were their ancestral stories. They are sort of like us, hearing the stories of scripture, whether the stories of Miriam and Moses or Mary and Jesus. Those are our ancestral stories, and they require faith because we were not there. And sometimes faith is hard. Samuel wasn’t enough. He was the heir of Moses and Deborah – only the three of them were both prophet and judge – but he wasn’t a miracle-worker or lawgiver like Moses and he wasn’t a warrior-poet like Deborah. He and his ministry weren’t enough.

We are not so different from them. We also need tangible symbols. Israelite worship like Episcopal worship was sensual. There were sights, sounds, smells, touches and tastes. A monarch was a religious symbol of divine power throughout the ancient world, not terribly different from a Christ Pantocrator icon come to life. And some still venerate the prophet, priest and pastor as God’s representative.

The need to have the power and presence of God in the midst of the community in a tangible, visible way endured and endures. And so God became incarnate in the womb of Miriam of Nazareth. An answer to that ancient prayer. But without the traditional trappings of monarchy. In fact so ordinary that his own family thought he was crazy from time to time, or least needed protection from himself, so that he wouldn’t wear himself out.

Jesus’ family, his mother, his sisters – we don’t know how many there were, just that there were more than one, his four brothers – Joseph Jr., James, Jude and Simon, his absent father Joseph Sr. and all whom he welcomes into his family, we who will do the will of God, find a monarch who refused to behave like a king and an incarnational presence who embraced and transcended death. A continuing, abiding, accompanying, guiding presence, reigning in our hearts with our consent. 

When we cry out, “Give us a king” because we cannot see where God is in our lives and in our world, may God disregard our demand and respond to the cry of our hearts with what we need, the living God and Risen Christ in our midst, reigning over the commonwealth of God in this world and in the next. Amen.