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I Samuel 10:17-27, The Coronation

I begin this essay by noting a important distinction in the two phases of naming kings and queens in England.  There is a difference between accession to the throne and coronation to that same position.  The philosophy behind this statement is that the throne of England is never vacant; the successor therefore occupies or accedes to the throne the moment his or her predecessor dies.  Yet, it takes a while for the machinery of state to get cranked up so that the right bishops and officials as well as foreign heads of state can be present for the official coronation.  Sometimes the gap between accession and coronation is more than a year, such as in the case of the recently-passed Queen Elizabeth II, whose coronation took place 14 months after she became Queen of England.

This background is helpful for understanding conceptually the flow of I Samuel 10.  Saul is anointed by Samuel as King in v 1, but he isn’t actually chosen and appointed to that task until this passage (10:17-27). That’s why his evasive answer to his kinsman in v 16 makes sense; no one, apart from Samuel and Saul, knows Saul is going to be king.  This passage, then, functions as Saul’s coronation, and can conveniently be divided into five subsections:  a) Samuel’s reluctance (vv 17-19a); b) Samuel’s overseeing of the selection of Saul (vv 19b-21); c) The endearing story of Saul’s reluctance (vv 22-24); d) Samuel’s explanation of the duties of kingship (v 25); and e) Diverse reactions to Saul’s being named king (vv 26-27).


                                                           a) Samuel’s Reluctance (vv 17-19a)


We never got the impression until this very moment that Samuel had any philosophical or practical objections to God’s instructions to him to set apart Saul as king. He anointed Saul seemingly as a matter of course in v 1; then he told Saul what to expect between the moment of anointing and his meeting up with the band of prophets.  Samuel is an essential player in all of this. But then, in verse 18, he starts complaining. Well, it actually isn’t framed in terms of a complaint, but Samuel gives the customary brief historical overview—of how God had brought them out of Egypt (v 18), but then he switches his tone in v 19 by the sudden use of a verb ἐξουθενέω, which is really the same as ἐξουδενέω, and which means “to make as if someone/something is nothing,” and which strikingly and sadly appears in I Sam. 16:13 when God decides he will consider Saul as “nothing.”  The irony of its use is evident.  The people considered God as nothing—yet God gave them a king; later God will consider Saul as nothing and replace him.  The tone of I Sam. 10:18 is that the people nagged God into letting them have a king, but that  God, as well as Samuel, were in fact was opposed to this. Yet, God consented. It isn’t a very convincing narrative because God usually doesn’t easily or willingly grant His people’s wishes which He opposes.


                                                                          b) The Selection of Saul (vv 19b-21)


This is a fairly straightforward section of the narrative, where we see in action the ancient practice of casting lots to make a choice. Instead of announcing the “winner” of the kingship stakes, Samuel has each of the tribes, and then kinship groups, and then families proceed before him.  When the lot falls on someone, it means that the king is to be found within his group. We don’t know the details of how this happened, but somehow it becomes clear how a lot falls.  It falls on Saul.


                                                                          c) Saul’s Reluctance (vv 22-24)


But, alas, the chosen one is nowhere to be found. Rather than people vying for the throne, or trying to elbow each other for closer access to the lot, we have the memorable picture of Saul’s being selected but then being absent. Rather than sending out a search party for Saul, Samuel inquires of the Lord whether Saul was even among them, and God responded that Saul had been hiding in the baggage (σκεύεσιν, v 22). Of course, people found him there (you can’t escape the all-searching eye of God, can you?) and he was presented “in the middle of the people” (ἐν μέσῳ τοῦ λαοῦ).  The only feature of Saul mentioned was his height—taller by all than a head.  This focus on physical features for kings then entered the narrative, despite its being downplayed in I Sam. 16:7. The people agree that Saul is a unique one among them and then shout, “Long live the King!” (v 24)


                                                                                          d) The “Rules” (v 25)


Despite God’s and Samuel’s reluctance to get into the kingship business, Samuel is ready to present a book to describe Saul’s tasks.  Nice that Samuel had the ability to lay out “the law” or ‘the ordinance” (τὸ δικαίωμα) and even write it in a book. The two leading English translations don’t quite know what to do with τὸ δικαίωμα:  Brenton’s renders it “the manner of the king: while NETS translates it as “the just claim of the king.”  Suffice it to say that we have no idea what the word precisely means here, but if we guessed it meant something like the “rules and regs” or the “duties of office,” we are probably not too far off.


                                                                             e) Diverse Reactions (vv 26-27)


As might have been expected with any dramatically new governmental structure, there wouldn’t be unanimity in support among the people.  The powerful ones support Saul.  The interesting phrase to describe them is υἱοὶ δυνάμεων ὧν ἥψατο κύριος καρδίας αὐτῶν or “the sons of power whose heart the Lord had touched.” But a group of others, denominated the “pestilential” fellows (the word λοιμοὶ, v 27, means “plagues” or “diseases”), grumbled and said, “Will this guy save us?”  So, they dishonored him and brought no gifts to Saul.


So, I Samuel 10 has taken us on a long and fruitful journey from Saul’s anointing to his enthronement/coronation. Though there are still some loose ends hanging out at the end of the chapter (e.g., whether Samuel and God really support the monarchy; whether the pestilential fellows will be able to ruin Saul’s tenure), we have a clear picture of a royal figure who also speaks with the charisma of a prophet.  He doesn’t yet know the duties of kingship, and the contents of Samuel’s book aren’t opened for us.  But a new day for Israel has dawned.

I Samuel 11

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