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Who’s in charge?

A Uniform Lesson for October 23, 2022.

Uniform Lesson for October 23, 2022
Scripture passage and lesson focus: 1 Samuel 8:4-7; 10:17-24

While the pattern of rebellion and bondage followed by outcry and deliverance was consistent in Judges, the “raising up” of a deliverer remained “occasional.” Each time Israel found itself in trouble, God would raise up a deliverer appropriate for the circumstances. Surely this model of leadership could continue. As with the election of Moses and Miriam and Gideon and Deborah, this seemed to be God’s preferred polity. However, this model of leadership required trust. What might happen if God was slow on the draw or the selected deliverer failed to show up? Wouldn’t it be more prudent to set up a succession of leaders? And didn’t it make sense to keep that leader in office and place all leadership decisions in that person’s lap? After all, that is what all the other nations were doing. Shouldn’t Israel do the same? Seems like a sensible path forward. Unless Israel already has a leader!

Forgetting Pharaoh

In almost any other story, the peoples’ desire to have a king would not be problematic. Different people have different gifts, and one of them is leadership. If God had the power to raise up a deliverer every time God’s people found themselves in trouble, why couldn’t God direct them to a deliverer who could remain in office after the crisis had passed? There are at least two simple answers to this question.

First, Pharaoh. You would think that a people fresh out of slavery would be cognizant of the pitfalls of concentrated power. You know the saying: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Remember Pharaoh? A former Pharaoh helped save Israel from famine, with Joseph’s help. But a later Pharaoh, who did not know Joseph, began to use this people as tools for labor; then he used them for more harsh labor; then he became obsessed with the possibilities of revolt. The same people who had recently cried out for deliverance now cry out for a king. No wonder Samuel was upset!

But, second, Israel already had a leader. From the very beginning of Exodus, this was a story about two kings/leaders: Pharaoh on one side; and Yahweh, the God revealed to Moses, on the other. “The horse and the rider, [Yahweh] has thrown into the sea” (Exodus 15:1). Only this God could be trusted not to abuse power. Only this God could number God’s people without exploitation. Only this God could continue to lead God’s people into an uncertain future — if only they could continue to trust. And so God counters Samuel’s protest with one of God’s own: “Listen to the voice of the people in all they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (v. 7).

Rejecting God

Thus God’s people must continue to wrestle with issues of polity to this day. How does our desire for human governance constitute rejection of God today? Should nations have kings? Should congregations have ministers? Should denominations have moderators? One of the most damning passages of Scripture is omitted from our lesson. It’s the description of what leaders can do if their power is not held in check. (See 1 Samuel 8:10.) Quite simply, they will take your sons for their armies, your daughters for their harem, and your crops/wages for their taxes. It’s as simple and as profound as that. Any human nation or community with a recent experience of slavery and/or oppression should be on its guard. Placing one human being above others is always problematic, no matter how carefully decided, prudently guarded and expertly “checked and balanced.” This story provides a hinge moment in Israel’s growth into nationhood. From the beginning, it is laden with promise – as the ongoing desire for a Messiah makes clear. But from the beginning, it is also burdened with peril – revealing an attempt to trust in human leadership over and above that of God.

Choosing Saul

This tension in the story may, in some way, explain the comical way the first election of a king goes — with Saul hiding in the baggage, apparently quite reluctant to take on the office he’s being offered. But it also helps us understand how this first election quickly turns tragic — with the obvious choice for king being replaced by an even less obvious one. This new turn in polity and nationhood gets off to a rocky start and continues to misfire until an appropriate leader/messiah/king appears. This is one lesson that opens up more questions than answers!

For discussion:

Presbyterians lean toward a representative democracy — in both ecclesial and national “courts.” How does this lesson help us understand this choice?

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