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I Samuel 12, Renewing the Covenant



This is a strange chapter, and it gets stranger the more you read it.  Oh, on the surface and at first glance it makes perfect sense. Saul, the new king, has just won his first victory (I Sam. 11).  He called together forces from throughout the kingdom to stave off the threat of the Ammonites.  In victory he dealt graciously with those in Israel who had opposed him.  Everything seemed to be going well.  Samuel the seer, who had anointed Saul as the first king, declared that they needed to have a covenant renewal ceremony.  Sounds eminently reasonable.  First victory; renew one’s allegiance to God; everything firing all on cylinders for this new governmental experiment in Israel.


Until you look a little more deeply into this chapter. In this essay I won’t be spending as much time examining the precise Greek words used by our author, even though some of the words are memorable. What particularly caught my attention is the way that Samuel takes the occasion of Saul’s dramatic first victory as an opportunity to attack the institution of kingship!  Oh, Samuel tries to couch some of his statements in the right theological language—such as God had approved setting up the kingship, but in fact Samuel is trying to undermine the institution of kingship.  Why would he want to do this?  It seems clear to me that Saul’s presence, even though sanctioned by God, provides an alternative power source in Israel, a power source that might become independent of or superior to that of Samuel. Ultimately, then, I see jealousy and worry at the potential loss of power and influence as factors at work in this chapter.


                                                                           Samuel’s Apology (12:1-5)


I am using the word “apology” in its basic theological sense:  to defend oneself and one’s ministry.  What ought to be noticed first in this chapter is that the first verses really present Samuel’s defense of his own ministry rather than any attempt to “renew the kingship” in Israel. Samuel actually is quite insistent in getting the people to say that he has always treated them well; that he hasn’t taken their goods; that he hasn’t oppressed them. In other words, it seems in this passage that Samuel is seeking personal validation more than a covenant or kinship renewal. Is he having doubts about his possible obsolescence?  The tone of the first verses is that Samuel is old is a bit concerned that he not be forgotten or that he be remembered positively. Just one comment on words. In vv 3-4 Samuel uses rare verbs of oppression and crushing to speak about things he hasn’t done.  The verbs are καταδυναστεύω (“to oppress strongly”) and εκπιέζω (“to put the squeeze on/oppress”) and θλάω (“to crush”).  In addition, there is a colorful list of nouns, including a rare one for “taking a bribe” that should be noted. The LXX translators thus have Samuel using a strong language of oppression to stress what he has not done among the people. He wants to get the people to admit his innocence.  And they just say the simple word μαρτυς, “(we are) witness” (that you haven’t done any of these bad things).


                                                             Rehearsing the History (12:6-12)


This section of the chapter has Samuel now reciting select events from Israel’s common past to show how the Lord has delivered the people. The common refrain is that the people have been ungrateful but that God’s faithfulness has prevailed. Two things should be noted in the retelling of this history.  First, Samuel isn’t reluctant to mention himself as one of the people who “saved” or “delivered” Israel (v. 11).  So hard is this for the translators of a prominent modern translation (the New Revised Standard Version) to accept that they gratuitously and without evidence change “Samuel” in the text of v. 11 to “Samson.”  In other words, our modern-day translators are thinking that it is a rather brazen act of Samuel to mention himself as one of the great deliverers of Israel. But if we really read the text closely, this is exactly what Samuel is doing.  He is somewhat afraid, in my reading, of being shunted off to the side. He has to retain his sense of importance even under the new institution of kingship.  So, he mentions himself in a list of the great deliverers of the past.  Second, when his historical review comes to a close in verse 12 he gets a dig in against the institution of kingship. He brings his historical recital up to the point where the people ask for a king, despite the fact that “the Lord your God was your king” (v. 12).  So, as with all recitations of history, Samuel has told the story of Israel that will do the most to burnish his own image and to gently suggest that the institution of kingship, despite being approved by God, was a mistake. He will become more explicit on this in the next section.


                                                Obedience and the Mistake of Kingship (12:13-25)


Samuel begins this section by an apparent concession:  that the Lord established the institution of kingship (v. 13). But the people must be super-vigilant to be obedient to the Lord.  Given their past history, this may be a difficult thing to do. The next few verses just give a predictable series of exhortations and warnings about the centrality of obeying God. But then Samuel changes his tone a bit in verse 16 by saying that God will send a remarkable meteorological phenomenon today:  a storm in the middle of harvest.  But what is the purpose of this divine manifestation?  To prove to the Israelites that they made a big mistake in choosing a king! The language of the LXX is pretty stark:  by sending these unusual meteorological phenomena God is showing the “evil” or “wickedness” (κακία) of the people in choosing a king. What??  Haven’t we gone over this previously?  Hasn’t Samuel already bought into this institution? I think Samuel is betraying a bit of personal insecurity that he just can’t let go of—kingship is ruining or at least lowering the value of his “stock” in people’s eyes—or he thinks it is. And, of course, the rain and thunder out of season makes the people extremely afraid and they all admit that it was wrong for them to have demanded the institution of kingship.  And, recall, all of this is being done at a ceremony to renew the kingship in Israel. I don’t think so.


Thus, in the final analysis, this chapter is not so much about the renewal of the kingship but about Samuel’s subtle attempt to undermine that God-given institution.  We can see why Samuel would want to do this but it does seem a bit underhanded, especially after God has stated that this is the divine choice. Samuel’s attempt to paper everything over at the end of the chapter by just reiterating the importance of obeying God can’t really cover the somewhat duplicitous activity of Samuel here. If I were Saul, I would watch my back. . .

I Samuel 13:1-15
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