As we enter the long season after Pentecost, our scripture readings shift gears. After spending the season of Easter, and in fact the last several Sundays of Lent as well, in the gospel of John, we are back to the gospel of Mark which we will focus on for the rest of the liturgical year, except for a brief foray during August back to John. The lectionary gives us alternatives for the Hebrew Bible reading. One is a series of readings that were selected because they relate in some way to the gospel reading. The other choice, the one we’ll be following this summer, is a semi-continuous reading. This year, in the second year of the lectionary cycle, this track of readings focuses on stories from the period of the monarchy.
There’s no better way to begin this narrative arc of monarchy than with today’s reading—the story of the people asking Samuel for a king and his response to them. For this story puts at the very heart of the narrative the key theme of the biblical perspective on monarchy—the ambivalent attitude in the text toward the institution of kingship. That deep ambivalence probably comes as a surprise to most casual readers of the biblical story, for what we usually hear is how God chose David and his descendants to be kings over Israel and how after the end of the monarchy, God promised through the prophets that it would be restored and last forever.
Certainly that is an important part of the Hebrew Bible’s attitude toward monarchy, but for all the emphasis on God’s choosing David and his descendants, there’s also a critique of the institution. The texts we are reading were edited long after the end of the monarchy and reflect a perspective that sought to explain why the monarchy ended and how the descendants of the Israelites could make sense of themselves and their God as a subject people. When we read that God told Samuel, “they have not rejected you but they have rejected me from being king over them,” we are at the heart of that critique.
To understand fully what is going on in this critique, it’s important to have a little more historical background. On the surface, the biblical texts relate a fairly straightforward, and to many of you, familiar story. The Hebrews fled from bondage in Israel, led by Moses across the Red Sea into the wilderness, where they wandered for forty years. After Moses’ death, and the death of the whole first generation of Hebrews, Joshua led the Israelites across the Jordan River into the Promised Land. There, with some setbacks and controversy, they eventually subdued the native Canaanites and created their own society and state. The Book of Judges which immediately precedes the books of Samuel, tells the story of the Israelites between Joshua and Samuel. They lived in a loose confederation and had difficulty obeying God’s laws, resisting idolatry and foreign powers. From time to time, God would raise up a charismatic military, “judge” who would lead the Israelites to victory and establish a period of stability and peace. But eventually after the Judge’s death, the Israelite community would again sink into idolatry and suffer defeat. The very last verse of Judges 21:25, is a fitting summary of the book: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”
But there’s another story that sheds light on the biblical narrative. Nearly two centuries of archaeological excavation in Israel and Palestine reveal a rather different, and fascinating tale. While it may be that some Hebrews did in fact come from bondage in Egypt, it’s also likely that when they arrived in Palestine, rather than a full-scale invasion and conquest of Canaanite city-states, this band of nomads went to the hills and created an egalitarian society. Eventually, they were joined by Canaanites who fled the oppression of the city states and became numerous enough to expand into the lowlands. Their society was agrarian, egalitarian, and their leadership spontaneous. They had no standing army. Much of this archaeological record finds confirmation in a close reading between the lines of Judges.
There’s another important bit of information we can derive from looking at the surrounding cultures. In the Ancient Near East, kingship, monarchy was generally considered to be divine. Histories, kingship lists, chronologies, often began with a phrase like, “when kingship came down from heaven. Kings were often understood to be divine, or semi-divine, and their rule was divinely ordained.
God also tells Samuel to warn the people about the consequences of their choice. Monarchy may make them like other nations but it brings with it taxation, military conscription, even slavery. There will be increased inequality because the king will amass for himself and his courtiers the nation’s wealth. It’s interesting that one of the primary reasons the people want monarchy is so that the king will lead them in battle. In other words, monarchy is also militaristic.
All of this may seem remote from our own experience and world. We don’t live in a monarchy, after all. But we’re as likely as the ancients were to see in our form of government, our nation, divine providence; as likely as the Hebrews were, to see in our changing fortunes signs of divine favor or punishment. And given that we also seem to be in a constant state of war and military spending that far surpasses the military spending of other nations, it offers us a word of caution as well.
The story from I Samuel is about the Israelites’ desire for monarchy, it reveals a great deal about the understanding of God that develops in conjunction with monarchy (and with monarchy’s ultimate demise). There are a couple of key elements here. First, in spite of God’s power, the people have freedom. Even though the desire for monarchy is seen as a rejection of God’s direct rule, God allows them the freedom to choose otherwise. Further, when God tells Samuel to “listen to the people” that could also be translated as “obey the people.” So God is also limiting God’s authority over the people.
We might reflect on how or whether or human institutions are divinely ordained. Is it merely custom that requires every president to end every speech with “God bless America?” Like I Samuel’s critique of monarchy, the gospel reading challenges us to think about another basic human institution; this time, the family.
We’re not quite as accustomed to hear about Christian family values as we were a decade or so ago; but conservative Christianity continues to make the case for a particular view of family, that it is divinely ordained, and that those who diverge from “traditional family” and “traditional marriage” are sinful. In fact, the New Testament isn’t particularly pro-family or pro-marriage. St. Paul, in I Corinthians does allow that “it is better to marry than to burn,” and in today’s gospel, Jesus relativizes the ties of family in favor of another sort of community—that created among those who follow him.
I don’t want you to understand me to say that family isn’t important. Of course it is. But Jesus is saying here that other relationships can take precedence, should take precedence. He’s saying this right at the beginning of his public ministry, just after he has called his disciples. It’s interesting that the passage begins with his family’s efforts to restrain him, to keep him from making a fool of himself and them and ends with him breaking free of those restraints, asserting that the traditional ties of family do not bind him or those who follow him.
Some of us struggle with relationships in our families. Some of us have been rejected, have had to break loose from those ties. Some of us have had to, or are seeking to create new relationships, new families in which we can flourish and find meaning.
As we reflect on these texts and on our own lives we might think about where we put our deepest trust. Is God present in those places? Is God present in those relationships? Have we put so much trust in those institutions, whether it be family, or nation, or something else, that we are no longer able to do God’s will, to be the people God wants us to be? Can we imagine being a part of the community of Jesus Christ, bound together in doing God’s will, rather than pursuing our own wills and our own desires?