As various cars, clown or otherwise, continue to fill with candidates vying for the next crack at the US Presidency, seeking endless opportunities to whip crowds into a frenzy with speeches filled with promises of how their leadership will save the country, restore morality and, also perhaps, best align with the Divine Will, we had for this weekend’s Old Testament lectionary reading a “stump speech” of a sort. Of a much different sort.
We’re told in 1 Samuel 8 that the Israelites want a king. They want a monarchy so they can be a political entity like their neighbors. They want their crowned ruler to “govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” They go to Samuel, the Head Priest and Prophet, asking God to appoint for them a king.
You’d think, since there is in so much hoopla for the kings of the Bible (at least for a few of them….David and Solomon probably best come to mind) in our Bible and in our tradition, that God would be thrilled to deliver to the needful Israelites a king – a good and faithful one, at least.
Isn’t this what we assume it's also like when God chooses our President, or at least seeks to?
Whether overtly or implied, political candidates still communicate, at least to the faithful, that they are God’s choice, will best follow God’s law and confer God’s blessing. This goes for conservative as well as progressive candidates. Probably all people who take their faith seriously vote thinking the candidate they support is the one God would want in office.
And while most people, whether "believers" or not, assume the Bible is filled with teaching to support this idea – that God is deeply invested and seeks to be deeply involved in our political life – maybe that’s just not so….
At 1 Samuel 8, the “stump speech” Samuel gives to an excited people hungry to learn who God has blessed for the noble job they’ve requested is not exactly what they’re expecting to hear. Samuel says:
“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you:
He will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots.
He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.
He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers.
He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers.
He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work.
He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves."
(Can you imagine a political candidate...or newly appointed monarch...making such a speech before his - or her - minions, replacing "he" with "I"? Of course not! Even though this would be one stump speech filled with promises the candidate/monarch could most likely deliver on, yes??!! Anyway, back to Samuel's stumper....).
If all this warning that a king will end up as nothing but corrupt, greedy and enslaving is bad, really bad, Samuel ends his speech with a kicker that is absolutely the worst. And weirdest.
"And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the LORD will not answer you in that day."
Whaat? God will turn His back and refuse to help? Won’t even respond with a “No”?
I don’t know of anywhere else in the Bible where God completely shuts down when His aid is requested. Where there is NO promise of new and better life at least somewhere down the road.
It’s such a stunning denial and so completely antithetical to the God’s character, we should not be afraid to let out a gasp, or, if drinking a glass of something, a spit-take.
It’s a moment in our sacred story that is both darkly funny and deeply tragic.
That’s because the people, so dead-set on their need for a king, refuse to hear any of the awful stuff God has told them, and instead keep insisting He give them what they want, as silly and misguided those wants are.
In a way, it sort of reminds me of this very funny scene from The Family Guy….
What makes this moment, and this scene, even more compelling and truly unique in the whole of the Biblical opus, is that it sets up the one truly tragic chapter of our scriptures.
The story of Saul. King Saul.
I’ll go into this more later, but Saul’s story is our Bible’s one true tragic character, and, in large part, it's because God fulfills God’s dreadful promise to remain silent, deaf and disaffected when both the people…and Saul…come to Him for help when the going gets tough and confusing (and that’s pretty much right off the bat).
Saul’s life, once he (reluctantly) agrees to be King, is long, difficult, painful, awful.
According to 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings, things don’t fare a lot better for the Israelite monarchy, and God’s relationship with it. Oh, life between David and God is good at times, but on the balance even that relationship much more rocky and heartbreaking than blessed.
This, again, may seem surprising, since we assume the Bible is quite gung-ho on the topic of God and politics.
However, maybe our scriptures, by insisting in 1 Samuel 8 upon God’s unmoved disdain and unforgiving silence in this arena, are trying to communicate that not only is God unwilling to get involved in our political life (at least for the most part) but is unable to participate. Political systems, no matter what flavor, seem to become inundated with the evils of power, ignorance and fear in a snap. Maybe they’re so fully warped there’s not even a crack through which God can infiltrate….
Crazy stuff to suggest, perhaps. And/or hold in tension as the cars, clown and otherwise, stop to stump on our soapboxes.