Once again, ancient Israel faced a problem. The centerpiece of the problem is justice and how to live in faith. Back in Exodus, God brought them out of slavery in Egypt and promised to protect them, yet they struggled to live in God’s promises. We do the same thing because placing our complete trust in God defies our self-reliance.
Living faithfully is difficult. We read in the Bible about the call to live as “resident aliens and visiting strangers” (1 Peter 2.11). We also read that we “do not belong to this world” (John 17.14). Even though these themes repeat throughout scripture,[i] they are challenging, if not impossible. That’s what the Israelites faced in 1 Samuel.
The song of Hannah, at the beginning of the book, introduced the themes and structure for entire book. Hannah didn’t have any children and, in this biblical context, having children brought value to a woman. So she was in conflict with Peninnah, who had a bunch of kids. Hannah went to Shiloh and prayed for a son. God heard her prayer and she gave birth to Samuel.
Hannah’s song celebrates God’s power to answer prayers. The theme represented in her conflict plays out again and again in 1 & 2 Samuel. We find pairs of characters in contrasting situations. Their stories are always about living in faith. Peninnah & Hannah. Eli (&his sons) & Samuel. Samuel (& his sons) & Saul. Saul ( &his son) & David. In each story, one character rises while the other is in decline. In 1 Samuel 8, Samuel’s sons were not fit to succeed their father as a judge. A group of elders went to Samuel and asked for a king.
1 Samuel 8.10 makes it clear that not everyone was asking for a king. In fact, it’s unclear which part of the demographic asked for one because, when Samuel told them about the burdens of having a king, they weren’t too worried about it. Even after he cataloged typical royal excesses,[ii] they still wanted a king. Some scholars speculate that this group included the wealthiest and most influential people. They weren’t worried about having a king because they would probably profit from it.[iii]
The moral of the story is: when we live in faith, and trust God with everything in our lives, justice prevails. They didn’t need a king. God’s love is a just love, and God shows no partiality (James 2.1-13; Acts 10.34; etc.). Asking for a king meant putting faith in something other than God. The people who went to Samuel used the justification, “We want to be like other nations.” They missed the memo that living in faith means being “resident aliens” and “in this world and not of it.”
They did have a legitimate complaint, though. The system was breaking down. Samuel’s sons were unfit as judges. Samuel seemed unwilling or unable to offer a remedy. Both Samuel’s notion of continuing with judges and the people’s request for a king were false options. These weren’t the only two choices. When we come up with a solution, it is rarely the only option available. After the people ask for a king, Samuel was defensive. He dragged his feet. And, he seemed to see their request as a personal affront.
As for the elders, they wanted something more than a solution to a legitimate problem. They wanted to be like other countries and didn’t seem to care about the distinctiveness of following God. This is like when churches stop living in faith and start approaching their institutional problems exclusively with secular solutions. We don’t need to ignore the world or secular solutions, but we also don’t need to let the world arounds us tell us what faithful living looks like.
In any situation involving justice, churches and Christ-followers should be leading the way. Recently, there was a story on NPR’s All Things Considered about Virginia Theological Seminary paying annual cash reparations of $2,100 each to the descendants of the African slaves who helped build their campus. During the story, the president of the seminary apologized to a descendant of a slave who helped build the campus.[iv] It was a touching story, and I hope more institutions find ways to pay reparations.
However, how did the people who were running a Christian seminary in Virginia read the Bible and think it was okay let other people work for free? Where in scripture did they find that justification? How could any Christian at any point in history rationalize slavery? Why did it take hundreds of years to figure out that slavery is wrong?
The same question and outrage applies to every injustice throughout history, whether we are talking about Jim Crow laws, civil rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, unequal pay, migration and ethnocentrism, or anything else. It’s like reading about the elders demanding a king and thinking, “You know? They were right. We could do it better than God.”
For the founders of Virginia Theological Seminary, using slave labor was what everyone was doing. Why should that particular group of Christians be any different?
This is the same logic the elders used in 1 Samuel and it’s called cultural accommodation. Cultural accommodation refers to the way individuals adopt values and beliefs from a host culture. Then, they accommodate them in the public sphere, even if they try to maintain the parent culture in the private. The elders’ level of cultural accommodation in 1 Samuel is interesting because they don’t seem to appreciate how, exactly, other nations viewed their king in relation to their gods.[v] I wonder if they appreciated what it meant to replace their faith in God with trust in a king. There’s no way to see it other than a slap in God’s face.
God saw it, though. In 1 Samuel 8.7, the Lord says, “They didn’t reject you, Samuel; they rejected me.” It’s the same thing when we depend on ourselves and not on God. We’re not fooling anyone, least of all God. Our life in the church and as the church is defined by our relationship with God in continuity with the “covenant model of Israel and with the community of the new covenant in Jesus Christ, as shaped by the early church.” When we look at what this faith means, we find “love, justice, peace, compassion, and worship.”[vi] That’s what we’re about.
Faithful living means figuring out how to trust God even when we don’t feel like it. It doesn’t mean setting God aside when we think we can do a better job. Living in faith means trusting even when things around us suggest that there’s a better way.
The pressures to conform to the world around us are pretty great. Our world likes to celebrate the “good” or “just” with their definitions du jour. Following our culture is very different than following the covenant model in the Hebrew Bible and the new covenant in Jesus Christ. Around us, we hear the siren songs of self-interest and self-fulfillment. It’s all about power and consumption, and greed and acquisition.
As we try to figure out what it means to be a faith community, we face the temptation to compromise God’s basic identity. 1 Samuel 8 is a warning. Even though God grants their request, they end up having to repent and come back to God again and again. We don’t have to be stuck making the same mistakes. We can live in faith and let our community of faith reflect a true and deep trust in God. What does this look like? It means hiring a fourth minister in the middle of a pandemic. That’s how you trust God. It means building a park and giving out some ice cream because there’s something special happening here and we want to share it. That’s following God on new paths and living in faith. Those are just a few first steps. Faithful living continues each day because we have to keep saying, “I trust you God and your solutions are beyond my ability to imagine.”
[i] John H. Elliott, 1 Peter, ed. William F. Albright and David N. Freedman, vol. 37B, The Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 476-83.
[ii] Jonathan Kaplan, “1 Samuel 8:11-18 as ‘a Mirror for Princes’,” Journal of Biblical Literature 131, no. 4 (2012): 642.
[iii] Bruce C. Birch, “1 and 2 Samuel,” in New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998), 1027.
[v] Jonathan H. Walton, “A King Like the Nations: 1 Samuel 8 in Its Cultural Context,” Biblica 96, no. 2 (2015): 179.
[vi] Birch, 1030.